starring Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn, Joan Allen
screenplay by Tony Gilroy and George Nolfi, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum
directed by Paul Greengrass
by Walter Chaw I look at the first film in this very fine trilogy as Jason Bourne embodying Harrison Ford's Deckard character from Blade Runner: someone with hidden potential and a certain confusion about his place in the world--and the kind of figure Matt Damon is best at portraying, as it happens. I see the second film as Bourne-as-Roy Batty: robotic, violent, inexorable, and at the end of his string, valuing life and looking to make what amends he can. This third film, The Bourne Ultimatum, directed again by Paul Greengrass and welcoming several key players (Joan Allen, Julia Stiles, Damon, screenwriter Tony Gilroy, DP Oliver Wood) back into the fold, ties both strings together: Bourne inhabiting his potential as something of an unparalleled killing machine while, simultaneously, becoming more human in his machine-like purposefulness. If there's a feeling we've been here before, mark that down as the inevitable side-effect of staying just a little too long with a series that, to this point, had yet to make any missteps, minor or otherwise. Consequently this film, more than the other two, feels like a straight line: less improvisation, more inevitability, all of it leading to the moment where our hero, the merciless assassin, decides whether his training to be an instrument overrules his instinct to be a human. It can't be a surprise anymore, so all that's left is that it be true.
Painted on a larger canvas, The Bourne Ultimatum poses itself as an unavoidable political allegory (what with Greengrass fresh off the triumph of United 93), lending a lot of weight to its portrait of a completely broken world where one wrong word spoken on an open line can bring the whole weight of a rogue National Security Agency down on them like a concrete gargoyle. The vision could be a paranoid one, I suppose, but the real worry of our state of affairs is that its paranoia plays less like science-fiction than like, "Hey, could probably happen if it hasn't already," and we have the leadership and climate to facilitate just such a trampling of liberty in the pursuit of preservation of the same. The picture is very much a product of the early 1960s, oddly enough, in the halcyon twilight of Camelot, when JFK was hiring mob hitmen to overthrow enemy governments and the world was on the brink of molten oblivion. In it, Jason Bourne unravels the secret of his past to find, as all good fairytale heroes will, that the initiation to their quest is themselves; that their enemy is their own shadow; and that their prize is the ability to embrace their own imperfections.
Kudos to the The Bourne Ultimatum for resisting the path of most resistance in its pursuit of a conclusion: throughout the series, there is a recognition that we're citizens of the world, not world police, and that every illegal action we initiate on foreign soil has a tendency to come home to roost. Here the Bourne character, a weapon of mass destruction put into play on an international stage, returns to our soil as so much of our wartime collateral has in the past (who sold the Japanese the metal to bomb Pearl Harbor? Who sold Bin Laden the weapons to kill our soldiers in Afghanistan?), and talk in the picture of money and other earthly considerations is met with the appropriate incredulity. The Bourne Ultimatum isn't terrestrial--it's a philosophical action movie bookending three similarly philosophical action movies. Consider that the trilogy opens and closes with Bourne floating in the ocean like a fetus in amniotic fluid, ready to be born; what happens in-between is an existential passion play that unfolds as the complete life cycle of this character from birth to actualization to, giving nothing away, the death of the Jason Bourne character before the light of his recovered memories. Paint the series as a journey of this country from wilful forgetfulness to sober reconciliation--from dirty tricks to questioning orders, apologizing, coming home, and cleaning house/s of representatives or otherwise. It's The Manchurian Candidate, but Raymond Shaw has hypnotized himself and the evil government looking to overthrow life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is ours.
The action is wonderful, with martial artist Joey Ansah portraying Bourne's primary tango partner in an extended chase/fight sequence in William Burroughs's InterZone, Tangiers, and the series' trademark car chase finally finding Bourne behind the wheel of an automobile with some horses (and all the more rousing for its surprising brevity). The Bourne Ultimatum isn't Nietzsche, but it is popular entertainment as a mirror held to the spirit of this age. Paranoid and apocalyptic, it distils the troubles of the world to one cipher, one symbolic, hyperbolic entity who by himself represents the rope tied between the beast and the ubermensch given the collective choice to succumb or exceed, draws the only victory possible from avoiding that plummet into the abyss. Images of Congressional hearings earn their snickers and their perception of impotence, though the film in its phantasmagoria is so completely in the here and now that it has feet of clay despite its fleet execution. Like so many movies that are critical or satirical, I wonder if it isn't that effective because our reality has finally exceeded our ability to disbelieve. Our ultimate defeat lies in our inability to separate their side from ours (see this illustrated literally in Spike Lee's Inside Man) in not only appearance, but in tactics and values as well. The Bourne Ultimatum is rousing entertainment: smart and outraged and mature. If any of it strikes as whimsy, it's this faith that at the end of the day we're still capable of discerning--and doing--the right thing. Originally published: August 3, 2007.