IMDB #158 The Bourne Ultimatum

A while ago I tried to read Robert Ludlum classic The Bourne Identity, but compared to the film of the same name I found it dryer than dry. I needed a glass of water after three pages.

Instead, let's talk about the second followup to the film adaptation, 2008's The Bourne Ultimatum.

The Key Players:

Director Paul Greengrass took some time out from dramatizing important historical events like the Bogside Masssacre (Bloody Sunday) and 9/11 (United 93) to make the second and third Bourne movies, taking over from Doug Liman.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Matt Damon makes his second appearance on the countdown, limiting himself to acting this time.

Triple oscar nominee Joan Allen (Nixon, The Crucible, The Contender) and teen Shakespearian Julia Stiles (10 Things I Hate About You, O, the Ethan Hawke Hamlet that wasn't as bad as you think) both return from Supremacy to show us the CIA has a conscience.

Meanwhile, character actor David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck, also he was totally Kim Basinger's pimp in L.A. Confidential you guys) and familiar southern gentleman Albert Finney play the ruthless CIA bad guys.

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The Story:

One suspects a "PREVIOUSLY, ON THE BOURNE SAGA" style highlight reel might be necessary, but it isn't. We start en media res as Bourne (Damon) runs from Russian police (I believe right after finally killing the dude that killed Marie in Supremacy). Even though he's limping, he ducks most of them, and gets the drop on two that follow him into a janitor's closet. "Don't kill me." One of them pleads.

"My argument is not with you," Bourne responds- he's begun to have flashbacks to his initial indoctrination into the supersoldier program (just in time for a third film!).

Sometime later he goes to London to track down a journalist for The Guardian that's mentioned 'Jason Bourne' in an article or two. Of course this journalist has also caught the attention of the CIA (chiefly David Strathairn's ruthless Deputy Director Noah Vosen). Despite Jason Bourne, smartest man in the world, and his clever dodging tactics, the journo ends up dead at the hands of a CIA sniper- though Bourne takes his notes before getting away.

Bourne tracks the CIA leak that was speaking to the dead guy to Madrid (Vosen and co. right behind him), and makes an unlikely ally in Nicky Parsons (Stiles). They follow the leak to Tangiers, Morrocco, and a crazy chase ensues to stop another CIA "asset" from killing the guy.

But then he blows up. Sensing a pattern here? After being forced to yet again kill another supersoldier just like himself in order to survive, Bourne sends Nicky on the run and takes the fight home to America.

The Artistry:

I was interested to turn a critical eye on the third Bourne movie- even though it's by far the most critically revered of the series, it's still a pretty straightforward action movie. What did it do any better than the first two?

The first half of Ultimatum in particular, in which Big Bad CIA dude Strathairn has the upper hand and Bourne spends a lot of time and energy trying to talk to two dudes who promptly get killed, might be a labor to watch.

But the first big sequence, involving a sniper, security cameras, and a cleverly placed pre-paid cellphone, is still riveting cinema- excellently staged and paced, plus the cellphone bit is just clever (and if I had a lot of money to waste on phones I would do it to strangers all the time). The chase through Madrid, however, is kind of a bore, since it consists mainly of people staring at maps on computer screens and a bafflingly naieve guy that we know is about ot explode.

But it doesn't take that long, and the Bourne brand has always been about delaying answers with well-made action setpieces. Plus, instead of regrouping after Bourne is foiled again, Ultimatum moves headlong into a stunning pursuit of the Evil Agent guy through the streets to keep him from killing Nicki.

His eventual takedown of the rival assassin, Desh, is punctuated by my favorite close-quarters weapon of the series (a book!) and that famous shot where the camera follows Bourne as he jumps from a rooftop, through a window across the alley.

The Bourne Ultimatum reaches real heights with that sequence, taking the raw energy and realism of the prior films and ratcheting everying up a few notches. The entire film contains several intentional homages to the previous two (I didn't realize we were so sentimental about them)- wikipedia has the full list.

You almost don't ever need to see those two again- but just almost. Supremacy of course began with the shocking death of Bourne's girlfriend Marie, and Greengrass and Gilroy make the wise choice to have that death still reverberate strongly- Damon plays the pain and remorse well, and it's a welcome additional motivation for the character, since 'who am I?' is getting a little old at this point.

Joan Allen throws a welcome wrench in the formula as well, since Bourne finally has an ally on the inside. This leads to a brilliant endgame...


In a brilliant retconning of the closing scene of Supremacy, Bourne calls the only CIA stooge with a conscience, Pam Landy (Allen), who covertly passes him the address of the supersecret training facility. He tells her to meet him in the park, then strolls into Vosen's office while the entire teams goes there to intercept him.

He finally gets to the final showdown with Finney, the brains of the whole operation, who reveals the somewhat-shocking truth: Bourne volunteered for the program by shooting an anonymous man in the head, just because they told him to.

Although it's clear that he does so after a fair amount of psyche-breaking-down type conditioning, it's just as clear that he does it willingly. The lesson here, just like in Total Recall, is that sometimes wiping your memory can make you a better person.

Bourne decides not to kill Finney, and escapes to the roof. There he is confronted by another CIA assassin that he spared earlier, who spares him in turn. Vosen gets a cheap shot in as Bourne jumps into the East River. I bet you can guess if he dies or not.

Also Landy faxes some documents somewhere and the bad dudes go on trial for being jerks, or something. Hooray!


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Slightly higher. It serves nicely as a summation of the whole series which saves us all a lot of time in the long run.

The Legacy:

Well it won three Oscars, and I guess there's going to be a Jason Bourne-less fourth movie (directed by Tony Gilroy). So that's something.

The Bourne series on the whole had an effect on the overall grittiness of the action genre in the last decade, exemplified best by James Bond's transformation from a cufflink-adjusting eyebrow raiser (Die Another Day) to a badass that strangled people to death in men's restrooms (Casino Royale).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Because it's fun, a side by side of the recreated scene from Supremacy.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Also it's strongly implied that Nicki knew Bourne (nee Jason Webb) intimately before he became a super soldier and lost his memory, but it's quickly moved past and never revisted, which I liked.

-Julia Stiles' wordless reaction after Bourne kills Desh is some great acting. It boggles me that she's spent so much of her career choosing terrible scripts.

-Rumor has it that Tom Stoppard did an uncredited polish on the script, further proof that he is awesome.

Coming Up...

157. The Big Sleep

156. Ben-Hur

155. The Manchurian Candidate

1 Response to "IMDB #158 The Bourne Ultimatum"

  1. WeirdRash says:

    Definitely the best of the Bourne movies in my book. I really enjoyed this one. It also made our top ten list of the best action films

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