PREVIOUSLY IN THE BOURNE TRILOGY…
The Bourne Identity
[ Adapted from the Robert Ludlum novel (which also inspired a 1988 TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain!), this spy thriller is built on the clever spin that the mystery the protagonist is trying to solve is in his own head. Found drifting in the sea with two bullets in the back, he (Matt Damon) wakes up with no recollection of who he is and how he got there. But there are things one doesn’t forget, like how to speak various languages, tie knots, ride a bike… And kick a lot of ass! For, on top of being intellectually and emotionally gripping, the crux of this tale allows for the incredibly thrilling discovery of one’s hidden powers. This is kind of like a superhero origin story in reverse, where Bourne doesn’t gain new abilities, he has them already, but he’s trying to find out how he got to be so damn strong, fast and sly! Meanwhile, we get hints of who trained him, shady characters (played by the brilliantly odious Brian Cox and Chris Cooper) at the CIA involved in black ops, attempted assassinations and the such. They’re now trying to eliminate the poor amnesiac bastard, sending hit-men after him (including Clive Owen), which leads to much suspense and exciting action, orchestrated with a lot of flair by Doug Liman. No wonder it caught on and led to those sequels. ]
The Bourne Supremacy
[ International intrigue: from the James Bond flicks to the “Mission: Impossible” series, it can feel like that well is drained. The break-ins, the double and triple-crosses, the shady government agencies, the assassination attempts… By-the-numbers stuff. Yet this sequel has an elegance to it, or what Jeff Wells calls “fumes”, that elusive cinematic quality that’s not about plot or characters but about the pure pleasure of rich, moody cinematography and kinetic editing. Director Paul Greengrass uses a lot of visual storytelling, admirably trusting the audience to add 2 and 2 a lot of the time. There’s also the fact that Jason Bourne is a more mysterious and complex character than the genre is used to. Between the forgotten past and the badassness, he’s kind of like Wolverine, if you allow me a geek reference. Matt Damon is quite the action (anti)hero, it turns out, and of course, he’s a great actor as well, which is essential as Bourne uses his wits as much as his fists. Joan Allen and the returning Cox, Franka Potente and Julia Stiles nicely round out the cast and make this, if not quite “supreme”, certainly a superior spy yarn. ]
AND NOW, OUR FEATURE PRESENTATION:
“Ultimatum” starts exactly where “Supremacy” left off. Wait, that’s not quite right: it actually plunges back into the culmination of the climactic chase in Moscow. That epilogue in New York, where Bourne spies on Joan Allen’s character while talking to her on the phone and she tells him his real name? It actually only occurs at the outset of the third act of “Ultimatum”. Ain’t it crazy?
Anyway, between Moscow and New York, Jason Bourne is still not sure how he came to be a killing machine, he’s still on the run and the CIA is still desperately trying to eliminate him. The main new element is that his story has been picked up by the media, more precisely by a Guardian reporter (Paddy Considine) who has surprising inside information about him… even more than he does. Hence, Bourne goes to London to meet the guy and, especially, find out who’s his source. Unsurprisingly, the CIA is also interested in knowing how the hell such top-secret, incriminating shit has wound up in a newspaper. In keeping with the agency’s “hope for the best, plan for the worst” philosophy, they ratchet up insanely intrusive surveillance on the reporter and put a bunch of armed agents on standby.
So you have all those elements on a collision course and man, does the film ever milk that for all it’s worth! During close to a half hour (or not – haven’t timed it), Bourne tries to get into contact with the reporter and get him in and out of a train station. As mentioned, through surveillance cameras and a lot of men on the ground, the CIA sees almost everything, but our hero knows their methods so he’s able to play around them. This sequence is astonishing, with relentless pacing, heart-pounding suspense and a continuous flow of information. Greengrass and screenwriter Tony Gilroy (who wrote the entire trilogy – well done, sir), even more so than in “Supremacy”, follow all the Billy Wilder tips (“grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go”, “let the audience add up two plus two”, etc.), which makes the film as smart as it is visceral.
In the lead, Matt Damon continues to be a force of nature. He’s as badass as it gets, but there’s also a tragic aspect to this character. Like Rambo (as described to me by Stallone), Bourne is an “unwanted child of an insensitive military machine” and “kinda like the Frankenstein monster, who didn’t ask to be built and is pursued to his demise by haunted memories”. Well, it’s more ambiguous than that, but I’ll let you discover in what ways.
There’s also something to be said about what a staggering indictment of the American secret services this all is, and don’t think it’s just spy fiction nonsense: under the Bush administration, illegal surveillance, flexible (or inexistent) ethics and a general shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude are hardly undocumented. In regards to this particular story, through the trilogy, it’s baffling how incestuous and self-serving the CIA’s actions are. It’s basically all about them covering their asses, with cover-ups on top of cover-ups, and let’s just “terminate” everyone who threatens our continuing shady shenanigans. Like Cooper and Cox in the previous instalments, David Strathairn and Albert Finney brilliantly play the leading loathsome figures.
Did I mention that the action never stops in this flick? It’s basically an uninterrupted series of chases, whether on foot, in cars or with motorcycles, plus brutal fights, shoot-outs and unbelievable stunts. Beside the Moscow catch-up, the aforementioned London train station set piece and a pit stop in Madrid, Damon gets his Bourne on in, around and atop buildings in Tangier and, ultimately, through the streets of New York. The cinematography and editing are first-rate all the way and, while I’m not usually a big fan of shaky-cam and hyper quick cutting, Greengrass and his crew make it work as a stylistic choice here, in no small part because it mirrors Bourne’s own fractured mind and his always-on-edge life on the run.
Here’s a trilogy where each film is greater than the one that came before and where, in the end, it all fits together. Well, some questions remain unanswered, but what I mean is that these aren’t unnecessary sequels, each film builds on the previous one. Simply put, “The Bourne Ultimatum” is the ride to beat this summer.