The Bourne Ultimatum opens in Russia as the amnesiac superspy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) does what he does best: elude capture, crack skulls, brood. Lickety-split he's en route to Paris, nursing his wounds and breaking out with a bad case of those itchy-scratchy hallucinations known as Hollywood Flashback Syndrome. Choice and painful bits from The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy whiz through his mind's eye, but before you can mutter "not another threequel," the movie goes into a full-blown techno-thriller frenzy, scattering hypercompressed plot points from Moscow to Paris to Langley, London, Turin, and New York.
So much for the first 10 minutes, goddamn.
Here's what's up: Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), "security correspondent" for the London Guardian, has been tipped off in Turin about a black-op CIA umbrella program code-named Blackbriar, the mere mention of which on a cell phone flags some terrifyingly competent post-Patriot Act software. Enter a shady, warmongering CIA bigwig (David Strathairn) and a sweet, nonviolent one (Joan Allen), plus various background über-spooks (Scott Glenn, Albert Finney). Bourne gets caught in the middle when he blips on the grid in pursuit of Ross, whose 411 on Blackbriar might finally explain why he kicks so much ass.
Adapted from Robert Ludlum's novel by a trio of writers who never met a cloak-and-dagger chestnut they didn't swallow whole, the story of Bourne's quest for his origins is often as formulaic as a dry martini, shaken not stirred. But where Bond movies are juiced by a conflict of egos, the Bourne adventures are all about competing intelligence systems — as manifested through action set pieces. In the case of Ultimatum, make that flabbergasting, mind-boggling, next-level action set pieces.
This is director Paul Greengrass's second Bourne picture after Supremacy, but it's also a stealth sequel to his last film, United 93. Both are up to the same basic business: generating tension through the interface of two meticulously paced, discretely parceled, highly pressurized sets of information. United 93 unfolds in the unbearable gap between the knowledge of the passengers and the facts on the ground — a distance rendered even more agonizing by our awareness of how it all turns out.
Ultimatum is structured around three gargantuan cat-and-mouse pursuits, each of which pits the extensive, elaborate, high-tech eyes and ears of the CIA against the mobile, intuitive, ultra-alert mind of a single (super) man. The excitement of these sequences has less to do with stunts (first-rate) or spectacle (best car chase ever) than the tango between these two intelligences — and the ways in which the spectator is invited to the dance.
In an astonishing Waterloo Station sequence, where Bourne attempts to make contact with and protect the journalist Ross, Greengrass establishes the CIA surveillance network in tremendous detail — video monitors, field agents, secret microphones, digital schematics — and then supercharges the suspense through Bourne's detection and circumvention. What's exhilarating here is the clarity of design, the cleverness of its thwarting, and the way the filmmaking immerses the viewer in the whole process.
Greengrass's Supremacy was one of the few movies to justify a spasmodic handheld aesthetic by keying to its controlling consciousness (a freaked-out amnesiac), thus placing us into an equivalent state of mind as we struggle to steady the flow of visual information just as Bourne struggles to make sense of his circumstances. Ultimatum refines this participatory dynamic even further.
Bravura doesn't begin to describe Greengrass's skill in mounting these complex sequences, the second of which maximizes the chaotic topography of the medina in Tangier, with the third wreaking magnificent havoc on the streets of Manhattan. This is, simply put, some of the most accomplished filmmaking being done anywhere for any purpose.
I much prefer such virtuosity in the service of unencumbered entertainment to the, uh ... what was the point of United 93 again? Not that Ultimatum lacks an agenda; it's actually the more overtly political of the two movies, imparting a coherent message and taking an intelligible stand. Bourne is the action hero as blowback — black sheep of the black-op set, figured in terms of post-9/11 protocols. His early deprogramming is repeatedly linked to the contemporary iconography of humiliation (black hoods) and torture (waterboarding). Strathairn's CIA agent defends his methods as necessary until "we've won," appropriating the counterintuitive rhetoric of the "war on terror."
But Ultimatum doesn't pretend to be anything other than make-believe. As a political statement, United 93 was defended as a critique of government failure — a rebuttal to the flawless anti-terror tactics of 24 — but you could claim the same for any number of military yahoo movies. What's troubling is its pretense to objectivity, the claim to being as close as possible to an authoritative (even authorized!) re-creation. It is as it was? United 93 and The Passion of the Christ are basically the same movie for different audiences.
Ultimatum doesn't have that cross to bear. It's responsible only to the code of the blockbuster. Concentrating on an effective dramatic resolution might explain why the political conclusion is delivered with such unexpected force — the allegory is unforced. The entire Bourne trilogy has been a maze of intrigue and double-cross winding to a final face-off with the minotaur: the beast that made Bourne who he is. What (and whom) Ultimatum ultimately confronts flips the standard conspiracy thriller on its head. Greengrass gets there so deftly it's enough to make yours spin.