Once again, the latest cinematic entry of the Bourne franchise remains so in name only. Whether or not that’s a bad thing is a debate for another time and place (a quick plea: read the books, for they are both satisfying and unspoiled, even if you’ve seen the films). Once Bourne made the transition from page to screen, he inhabited another universe; one he was ready to conquer with his special blend of mystery, heroism, and quest for redemption.
The Bourne Ultimatum gets a little playful with its narrative, sandwiching the first acts of the film in between the conclusion of Supremacy, and that film’s epilog — a daring, and altogether useful choice. Still on the run from those who would brand him a criminal, Bourne learns a reporter has begun writing a series of articles devoted to his killer alias, and sets out to find the writer with hopes of tearing down the rest of the wall separating Bourne from his past association with top secret CIA program Treadstone.
Though Ultimatum retains much of the creative force behind Supremacy, the focus of Bourne’s evolution as a character fades to the middle ground this time. Indeed, one of the factors that elevated Supremacy above the over-hyped Identity was turning Bourne into a hero with a quest a few shades deeper than cracking yet another web of conspiracy entrenched within Hollywood’s idea of the evil CIA. The evolving narrative of the Bourne legacy has spun around ideas of memory, moral conscious, choice and questions about what it means to be human. Ultimatum breezes past these and other more character defining elements, choosing instead to focus on the action.
And if it’s action you crave, you’re in for a feast. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Supremacy) brings back the chaotic maelstrom that somehow retains a semblance of order, though it’s already become a bit old shoe. The flurry of cuts, edits and shaky-cam just leave too much room for confusion. At one point, Jason fends off an attacker with a towel, and even dispatches his foe with said linen, though I am at a loss as to the how. I replayed the scene twice, just to be sure, and I’m reasonably confident Jason strangled the poor guy. A minor quibble, perhaps, but a better film would not have left me room to question.
By now, the role of Jason Bourne has become a staple persona that doesn’t allow Matt Damon any room to maneuver with the character. He comes through with what’s provided, though he inspires a little less empathy this time (and maybe, as I stated earlier, this is more of a scripting problem than anything else). His supporting cast is a who’s-who of underused talent. Joan Allen returns as CIA deputy director Landy, and unfortunately has less to do this time, running second fiddle to the villainous Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), a cookie-cutter CIA bad guy taking orders from the shadowy Dr. Hirsch (Albert Finney).
The plot stays thin and light, always playing around with hints of depth and intrigue, but only enough to make the stakes feel more important rather than earning real importance. Dialog merely transitions the narrative to the next action set piece, and I’ve seen better delivery from a high school drama club. But seriously, who comes to these movies to see an actor chew scenery?
Downshifting Bourne as a character on this carnival ride has weakened assertions that he has become the action hero of the age. We had the opportunity to glimpse his beating heart through his relationship with the ill-fated Marie (Franke Potente), but Ultimatum fails to reconnect on that level. It’s an enjoyable, candy-coated escape that keeps its hand submerged in weightier themes just enough to elevate it over most actioners (see Peter T. Chattaway’s discussion of the trilogy’s water symbolism). Is it enough to earn Bourne a place alongside the likes of Eastwood’s Man with No Name, Dirty Harry, or even Bruce Willis’s John McClane (sequels notwithstanding)? Maybe. But again, a better film would not have left any doubt.