Remember Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? The best thing about that movie (aside from the monkey brains) was the simple elegance of the plot. Indy’s in trouble, and every time he escapes, he finds himself in even more trouble — a cliffhanger blown up to feature-length. The Bourne series has extended a similar premise into three films: a man gets chased while he’s trying to find out who he is. Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum is the leanest and most exciting of the series yet, a chase movie of breathtaking purity.
We all know the nightmarish premise from our dreams — what it feels like to be Jason Bourne, perpetually running. Sure, he can take out a dozen goons in hand-to-hand combat, fool the spooks at Langley and drive a totaled NYPD cruiser through crosstown traffic backwards, but he only displays a sum total of three character traits. No wonder everyman Matt Damon is perfect for the role — anybody can project themselves onto this bland cypher (and I mean that in a good way.) Motivation and character are boiled down to bare bones; the film begins mid-chase, dispenses with opening credits altogether, and even if the action slows down for a moment of shaky respite, the pseudo-documentary camera never stops bopping and weaving.
That pseudo-documentary camera is controlled by director Paul Greengrass, whose exceptional talent lies in relaying complicated second-by-second events, often in disparate places and connected through an array of high-tech gadgets, with precision and an eerie sense of reality. At his best — like in a bravura sequence in Waterloo Station — Greengrass can make you feel omnipresent. I admired the technique in the historical reenactment Bloody Sunday but found it disconcertingly out of place in the gratuitous United 93. In the Bourne films, we get to enjoy the filmmaker’s prodigious skills without any of the baggage. The thriller is his natural home, and The Bourne Ultimatum is a thriller stripped to its essence.
Madrid, London, Tangiers and New York City are the settings for the film’s setpieces, and Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Julia Stiles, Scott Glenn, and Joan Allen co-star. As usual, great local talent supplements the cast, including Paddy Considine and Daniel Brühl (Goodbye Lenin), who has a short scene as Franka Potente‘s brother. Among the film’s highlights are an almost unbearably intimate hand-to-hand fight to the death that ends in stunned silence and makes the “seriousness” of Casino Royale look sentimental. Speaking of Bond: The Bourne Ultimatum shows just how slack and self-satisfied the much-praised Casino Royale really was. Bond has the glossier locations, juicier women and flashier cars, but in a fight, Bourne would slit 007’s throat and make off with the suitcase nuke before Bond had time to put down his martini.
The Bourne Ultimatum. Paul Greengrass, 2007. ****