If they could bottle what gives “The Bourne Ultimatum” its rush, it would probably be illegal. The third and purportedly final installment in the mountingly exciting series is a pounding, pulsating thriller that provides an almost constant adrenaline surge for nearly two hours. Worldwide B.O. will be terrific and likely surpass that for each of the previous two pictures, which combined pulled down more than $500 million.
In setting Jason Bourne on the home stretch of his search to discover who and what made him the killing machine he is, director Paul Greengrass has outdone himself, creating a film of such sustained energy and tension that the infrequent pauses for breath seem startling in their quietude. In other hands, unrelenting nervous camera movement and machine-gun cutting prove wearying more often than not, but Greengrass skillfully employs both not only in the service of excitement, but for the accentuation of telling detail and discreet parceling out of information.
Result is a breathless doozy that sends Bourne from Moscow to Turin, Paris, London, Madrid and Tangier, Morocco, before alighting in New York, from where the CIA’s extra-legal assassination org has been tracking his movements with the most sophisticated and instantaneous of high-tech equipment. But Bourne continually beats the agency at its own game, outwitting and tricking its surveillance ploys and besting the toughest killers the company can throw at him.
Having settled certain scores in “Supremacy” three years ago, Bourne (Matt Damon) is determined to retrieve his memory this time around, so as to learn the identity he had before placing his skills at the service of the agency. Spurring this opportunity are articles by a London journo (Paddy Considine) in which revelatory details of Bourne’s career were obviously provided by a highly knowledgeable source.
After a hair-raising pursuit of Bourne and the scribe at London’s Waterloo Station, Bourne tracks the source to Spain, where he once again meets CIA op Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), and then to Tangier, where a CIA “asset,” or hitman, is lying in wait. An amazing chase through the port city’s twisty, hilly streets and the teeming passages of the old Medina, then over rooftops and through windows, and finally to a gasping, slashing, hand-to-hand combat scene in a cramped bathroom, is a marvel of technique and sheer logistics, and one that makes marvelous use of a legendary city rarely seen in Western cinema.
Along the way, it becomes clear the CIA has replaced its former black-ops program, Treadstone, with a new one called Blackbriar, which under stern topper Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) displays a propensity for rogue action and killing as a ready solution to all problems. As they listen in on phone calls and observe Bourne’s movements their secret Manhattan HQ (never before has a feature film so well documented London’s pervasive surveillance cameras), Vosen and colleague Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) argue over what to do with Bourne. Landy, who developed a certain affinity for the lone wolf in Berlin three years back, wants to keep him alive, while Vosen repeatedly insists upon whacking him. Latter’s increasing frustration over the mounting failures to do so amply contributes to the very pure audience pleasure the picture generates.
Greengrass stages one spectacular set piece after another, virtually all of them in crowded public places — train stations, airports, cafes, bottlenecked city streets — that lend the action scenes an unsurpassed sense of verisimilitude. Bourne walks away from more than one auto crash that would have finished off lesser men, but he and we know that nothing is going to stop him before he comes face to face with his own Dr. Frankenstein, a man whose image periodically flashes through his mind.
Resolution to this central issue of the three films, as well as to individual fates of secondary characters, proves highly satisfactory, resulting in that rare tumultuous thriller that can’t be faulted at all on its own terms. The continuity and even upgrade in quality as the series has progressed can be significantly attributed to a solid team that hasn’t changed much across the seven years; producers Frank Marshall, Patrick Crowley and Paul L. Sandberg have been onboard for the entire ride, as have story and screenwriter Tony Gilroy (this time credited alongside Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi), cinematographer Oliver Wood, editor Christopher Rouse and composer John Powell, whose urgent musical accompaniment is goosed by some striking string and percussion orchestrations. Second unit and stunt work overseen by Dan Bradley is top-drawer. Nor should one forget Doug Liman, who continues on as an exec producer after having set the artistic template as director of the initial outing.
It may not have been entirely apparent at first, but Bourne is unquestionably Damon’s signature role, the one in which a viewer becomes most complicit in the actor’s identification with a character. The subjective camerawork merely augments the degree to which one is completely with him in the series, and if this is indeed his last “Bourne,” as he has said, then this is a performance to be savored all the more.
Stymied by limited action in earlier rounds, Stiles has more to do this time but remains deliberately understated. A low-key Strathairn proves mightily effective in an against-type turn as the quietly seething heavy, while Allen shrewdly reveals a woman dedicated to creatively subverting the constraints of her highly regulated job. Scott Glenn turns up briefly as a new CIA director, and Albert Finney effectively lends his weight, basso tones and a slight Southern drawl to his man-behind-the-curtain character.