Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Review - The Bourne Ultimatum

It has been three years since we last encountered amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), in Paul Greengrass' superb thriller The Bourne Supremacy, but this third and best instalment in the series plunges us straight back into his story as if no time at all has passed. The Bourne Ultimatum picks up the action where the second picture ended, following Bourne as he limps away from the destructive car chase which formed the climax of that film (Supremacy's New York-set coda is cleverly utilised elsewhere) and skilfully eludes the Russian police as violent flashbacks from his dark past continue to plague him. The only route left for Bourne to take is to face his demons; to hunt down the men who made him what he is and - as he promised - to take the fight to their door.

So he does just that, taking a roundabout route - via Turin, Paris, Tangier and London - before returning home for a top-notch New York showdown; and while Bourne leads his pursuers a merry dance across the globe, he leaves the audience exhilarated, stunned and often slack-jawed with astonishment. There really has been nothing to touch the Bourne trilogy for mainstream thrills over the past five years. Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity was an efficient and slickly entertaining adventure, but it was Greengrass who took things to another level, with his dynamic and formally daring approach establishing The Bourne Supremacy as new touchstone for the genre (indeed, the film was frequently cited as a major influence on the tougher James Bond). Remarkably, the British director has managed to surpass his own high standards with The Bourne Ultimatum, a film which is as gripping and technically dazzling as anything I have seen in a cinema for some time, and a film which already feels like a classic.

Perhaps the most surprising element of this franchise has been the transformation of Matt Damon into an iconic action hero - really, who saw that coming? The fresh-faced star of Good Will Hunting and The Talented Mr Ripley had proven himself as a fine actor long before being cast as Bourne in 2002, but Matt Damon as a lethal assassin sounded like stretch. Those fears have long been cast aside, of course, and one can now see how vital Damon's intelligent and rigorously controlled performances have been to this series' continued success. He has developed his character in gradual shades, and in The Bourne Ultimatum the traumatic events this character has been pushed through are etched all over his face. There's a ruthlessness in his eyes, a single-minded determination in his movements, but he continually expresses a core of humanity at the heart of this killer, as he desperately tries to discover who he is.

The trail leads him to London, where a Guardian journalist named Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) has uncovered details about Treadstone - the covert agency which trained Bourne and his fellow 'assets' - and an upgraded version named Blackbriar, without realising exactly what he has stumbled into. Bourne contacts him and arranges a meeting at Waterloo Station, which initiates the first of The Bourne Ultimatum's many brilliant set-pieces. In a gripping sequence, Bourne guides Ross through the busy concourse of the station by phone, trying to extract information from him as well as protecting him from both a CIA hit squad and a lone gunman who is targeting them both. Using his trademark restless camerawork, Greengrass puts us in the middle of the action as the various players close in on one another and the throngs of commuters confuse the issue, but the director never confuses the viewers. Greengrass thrives on creating an edgy, chaotic atmosphere, but it is always a controlled chaos; he always ensures we know where the key figures are in relation to each other and their surroundings, and Christopher Rouse's masterful editing escalates the tension while maintaining a constant forward momentum.
The Bourne Ultimatum just never lets up. We are treated to a chase through the streets and over the rooftops of Tangier which is mind-blowing in both its logistical challenge and execution, and Greengrass can switch modes in an instant, cutting from large-scale set-pieces to bone-crunching fights. He stages one such sequence when Bourne and another assassin go toe-to-toe in a hotel room, tearing the place apart as Bourne uses whatever he can find - a book, a candlestick, a towel - to fend off his opponent. The scene is not accompanied by any music, we just get the sounds of desperate breathing and crunching impact, the bone-shuddering sound of bodies being broken. This realistic approach to violence has become one of the Bourne series' hallmarks. Every punch and kick makes its mark, leaving scars both physical and psychological, and the effect is often sickeningly authentic. When Bourne defeats his assailant in the violent tussle at the centre of this picture, the camera cuts to his ally Nicky Parsons (Julie Stiles) who stares with a mixture of shock, awe and revulsion; her reaction probably mirroring that of many viewers.

Stiles is one of the familiar faces who is returning to the franchise here (she is given a little more to do this time), and the other is Joan Allen who is again pitch-perfect in her role as Pamela Landy, the CIA operative who is growing increasingly conflicted about the hunt for Bourne. There are new additions to the cast in David Strathairn, Scott Glenn and Albert Finney; and while their roles may be little more than stereotypical 'shady government types', these three fine actors play their villainous parts with the expected level of professionalism and class. It's hard not to cheer for Bourne as he gets his comeuppance on these characters, but in the final third Greengrass and his writers - including Tony Gilroy, who has scripted all three films - subvert expectations, with a climax that is well thought-out and satisfying in spite of its ambiguity.

The way Greengrass chooses to end this trilogy is a testament to the director's commendable and refreshing avoidance of genre clich├ęs. Of course, a few slip through the net here and there, but their scarcity makes them more palatable; and while The Bourne Ultimatum's plotting does suffer from some credibility-stretching and logic-defying in parts, Greengrass' ultra-kinetic, invigorating direction never gives us a minute to question what we are seeing. We are completely engrossed in Jason Bourne's world, following every car chase, punch-up and revelation with rapt attention. But what of that closing shot, which seems to leave the door open for further Bourne adventures? The character has been resurrected in a set of new novels, written after Robert Ludlum's death, but any attempt to bring him back to the screen would, I fear, be a mistake. As it stands, the Bourne series is an almost perfect cinematic trilogy, and the sense of closure offered at the end of this film feels like a note-perfect way to draw a line under it. After five years of running Jason Bourne has confronted the ghosts lurking in the shadows of his past, and has finally found himself. There is nowhere else for him to go.