THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM
There's a lot of plot in The Bourne Ultimatum - all manner of clandestine meetings and hidden motivations and governmental conspiracies - but the story can be neatly summed up by the titular fugitive himself: "Someone started all this," Bourne tells the brother of his murdered lover, "and I'm gonna find him." Nothing else is really germane here, and the exhilaration of this third entry in the spy-thriller franchise is that, with as visceral a filmmaker as Paul Greengrass at the helm, nothing else needs to be.
As a director of action set-pieces, Greengrass is relentless about stripping scenes down to their bare essentials: intention, movement, violence, catharsis. Yet for a movie that, if I counted correctly, doesn't feature even one joke, nothing about The Bourne Ultimatum is oppressive. You watch the film revved up and alert - it's inconceivable that anyone could so much as yawn during its brisk 110 minutes - and leave the theater fully satisfied, replaying its best sequences in your head on the drive home. A process that, in all likelihood, will take longer than the drive itself.
Like its predecessors - 2002's The Bourne Identity, directed by Doug Liman, and Greengrass' 2004 The Bourne Supremacy - Ultimatum is essentially a feature-length game of cat and mouse. The trained assassin David Webb (a.k.a. Matthew Bourne), haunted by the faces of those he's killed, attempts to retrieve his past while hunting down the CIA operatives who brainwashed him, while those very operatives are dedicated to hunting him down - continually one step behind the globe-trotting amnesiac, the CIA is a mouse that only thinks it's a cat.
With this third adaptation of the Robert Ludlum series (written by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns, and George Nolfi), Bourne finds many of the answers he's been seeking over the span of three films, but as with any meaningful journey, the destination is almost irrelevant. Greengrass, aided in no small part by the brilliant editor Christopher Rouse, packs the movie with so many intensely gripping - and intensely enjoyable - scenes that by the time Ultimatum's climactic revelations are delivered, you're almost disappointed; not by the plotting, but because the roller coaster, as one inevitably must, has finally come to a full and complete stop.
One especially bravura sequence seems worthy of special mention, but allow me to dumb down the particulars far more than Greengrass does. Aided by his CIA-emissary ally, Nicky (Julia Stiles, who's radiant without ever offering a smile), Bourne conceives a plan whereby he'll follow a hired killer to his target, a man whom Bourne has been trying to locate. The CIA, however, learns of this plan and Bourne's whereabouts, and - through one of the film's unremitting series of cell-phone communiqués - informs the killer that Bourne and Nicky are to be his next targets. Nicky, however, soon grows cognizant of this plan, and attempts to evade the assassin in a crowded Moroccan street, putting the audience in the position of watching Nicky being followed by a killer, who's being followed by Bourne, who's being watched by the CIA.
For minutes on end, with composer John Powell's percussion-and-strings soundtrack subtly egging them on, the chase continues, finally culminating in a brutal confrontation in, of all places, the bathroom of a Tangier apartment. A sequence that began as enormous in scope finds its apex in the most mundane of locales, yet amazingly, the intensity only increases once Bourne, Nicky, and the killer are in this restricted space; Greengrass keeps the momentum going with such drive that, by its end, you feel as if you've experienced this protracted chase scene personally. It's an extraordinary rush, and by no means the movie's only one. (At several points during the screening, I was aware of my fists being clenched, and it took considerable concentration to relax them.)
When it's not turning your insides into a happy knot, Ultimatum contents itself with merely being wickedly intelligent and involving. All of the sequences set within the confines of the CIA are marvelous - watching Joan Allen and David Strathairn face off against one another is almost an embarrassment of acting riches - and through it all is Matt Damon, forceful and focused and unexpectedly touching; he's a thoroughly human center in this gloriously designed contraption.
The Bourne Ultimatum isn't flawless. The dialogue - what dialogue there is, at any rate - is, at best, perfunctory, and even for a Hollywood blockbuster, a few touches are too silly to be believed; the one time I giggled was at something I shouldn't have giggled at, when Bourne looks into the charred remains of a briefcase, and the piece of information he needed to find is the sole briefcase item magically left unburnt. But for a three-peat sequel in a summer rife with them, Greengrass' movie is remarkably strong, and I'm more than ready to be Bourne-d again.