The Bourne franchise re-defined action-movie excellence. It’s third instalment, The Bourne Ultimatum, took action cinema to its perfect limit.
The formula was hinted at in Doug Liman’s first instalment, The Bourne Identity (2002). It relied on urban-style camerawork, lightning-fast cutting and the crispest sound editing on the big screen.
But Liman’s film was too jaunty and techno-reliant. Had the franchise stayed under Liman’s direction, its films would’ve become frivolous distractions, instead of engrossing examples of action cinema.
When Paul Greengrass took over directing duties for 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, the formula became tighter, leaner and better. Greengrass essentially raised the best elements of Identity up a notch.
The camerawork became even more docu-style, the fight and chase scenes were quicker and more savage, while the sound editing was even more immediate.
Greengrass scored big with Supremacy, but took the action movie to its perfect limit with 2007’s Ultimatum.
He did it by creating the ideal match of spectacle and suspense. Greengrass brilliantly balanced these two essential elements of any great action film.
The best examples of this balance are a pair of unforgettable set-piece scenes. The first depicts a CIA-led stalk-and-kill operation at London’s Waterloo station.
The targets are Bourne (Matt Damon) and Guardian newspaper journalist Simon Ross, played by a wonderfully twitchy Paddy Considine. Ross is chased by covert operatives intent on silencing him permanently. Bourne, wanting to know what Ross can tell him about his past, is determined to save him.
While Ross is stalked through terminals by electronic surveillance emanating from a covert intelligence base in New York, he receives help via mobile phone from Bourne.
The viewer sees the pursuers closing in, but also knows Bourne is on hand to thwart their attempts, a fact not initially known by Ross’s aggressors.
Even with inside knowledge, the viewer can’t be sure either Bourne or Ross will escape the station alive. Once nefarious covert chief Noah Vosen, played superbly by David Strathairn, knows Bourne is in the station, he enlists an assassin to kill both targets.
Now the viewer’s inside knowledge has been reversed. The assassin is on his way and will soon be in place, but Bourne and Ross don’t know it.
Greengrass repeatedly builds and sustains tension by treating his main scenes as ominous jigsaw puzzles. He shows the viewer every element to reveal how things can, and will, inevitably clash.
The viewer simply has to wait for the action to ignite and watch the stunning results. That is the basic pattern of Ultimatum.
Tension is built through patient intricacy while Greengrass sets his scenes. That intricacy is then punctuated by shorts bursts of violence.
The chase and fight scene in Morocco represents the action genre at its peak. Bourne and conflicted operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Styles), are targeted by another of Vosen’s assassins, known as Desh.
Desh stalks Nicky through crowded marketplaces and narrow alleys. At the same time, Bourne, chased by the Moroccan Police, pursues Desh from above, leaping from one rooftop to another.
Desh doesn’t know Bourne is coming, but the viewer certainly does. The elements for suspense are perfectly established: will Desh catch Nicky? Can Bourne outrun the Police and arrive in time to intercept Desh and prevent her from being killed?
It’s inevitable that all three characters will collide at once. After the elaborate and thrilling chase, that collision creates a flurry of violence.
Bourne and Nicky struggle to overcome Desh in easily the greatest fight scene in cinema history. The cutting is fast and clever, while every blow is rendered with eye-wincing impact, thanks to pitch-perfect sound editing.
Each swing of the arm sounds like a fist flying by your head. Every shot that connects makes you grimace.
Technical bravura makes Ultimatum the perfect action movie, because Greengrass puts mechanics above dense plotting and thematic depth. That might imply the film is a shallow work, but it’s actually true spectacle cinema.
Greengrass still frames his action with a story, namely Bourne’s attempts to remember how he became an assassin. Flashback scenes feature Albert Finney, playing an ethically challenged psychiatrist who brainwashes government-sponsored assassins like Bourne.
His eerily delivered line, “Will you give yourself to this program?” echoes through Bourne’s half-remembered dreams. It has more than a touch of Laurence Olivier’s “Is it safe?” hauntingly delivered during torture in Marathon Man.
Bourne’s pursuit toward his origin as a killer provides a mystery to underpin the action. But that mystery never overshadows the spectacle.
Nor does the philosophical clash between Vosen and Agency moralist Pamela Landy, played by Joan Allen. Vosen’s repugnant realpolitik justifications challenge Landy’s resistance against covert killings.
But there isn’t room for preachy monologues from either character. That’s because Supremacy never tries to be more than it is.
It never becomes weighed down by half-baked explorations of grand themes the way Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy sometimes did.
Ultimatum simply sticks to being action cinema. It reaches perfection by combining a sense of jeopardy with visceral ferocity, to create awesome spectacle.