Dir: Paul Greengrass. US. 2007. 113mins.
The Bourne Ultimatum serves as an involving and fitting bookend to Matt Damon's character-powered spy thriller series, paying off in a thrilling manner his amnesiac assassin's search to uncover the roots of his identity while also delivering plenty of slam-bang, real-world action set across a sprawling variety of locations.
Despite their international settings and flavoring, the first two Bourne films rang up 60 percent of their cumulative $500m theatrical grosses domestically, a proportional split of return that could increase with this offering given the movie's favourable late summer release date, lack of genre competition and the fact that it's being sold with the tagline, 'This summer, Bourne comes home.'
Either way, though, the film - which Damon has said will likely be his last with the character - looks to be a box office winner both Stateside (from August 3) and aboard, sending the series out on a high note and leaving distributor Universal to ponder franchise prequel or spin-off possibilities.
In 2002, director Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity drew a large part of its pop and verve from the attached-at-the-hip nature of its conceit and action - as Damon's overwhelmed, memory-impaired CIA operative Jason Bourne experienced the action in bewildering fashion, so too did the film's audience.
With elements of his personal identity uncovered, the sequels have each in their own way extended the search for professional closure. To his former employers, however, Bourne is the loosest of loose ends, and so they're still looking to tie him off.
The Bourne Ultimatum opens at a dead sprint, and doesn't much slow down; even its quiet, contemplative moments have a sense of unease and their own careening forward momentum. When Bourne reads details about his exploits in a newspaper, details which obviously come from a well-connected (read: intra-agency) source, he contacts London investigative reporter Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), who's been slipped information about Blackbriar, a spin-off portion of the top secret Treadstone black-ops program from the first movies.
Bourne sets up a meeting on the fly, then detects and disables a CIA snatch-and-grab team - sent by forward-leaning section chief Noah Vosen (Strathairn) - that's out to determine and quell the source of their leak by nabbing Ross.
When the CIA suddenly finds Bourne back on their radar screen, they put him in play as a target, fearing he's out to expose the questionable legality of their clandestine rub-out program when in actuality he's first and foremost trying to piece together his own history.
Two more or less sympathetic figures from Bourne's past, CIA bureaucrat Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) and junior operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), come into the picture.
A power struggle then ensues between Landy, who favors trying to bring Bourne in, and Vosen, who feels his end-of-the-spear authority gives him the right to wipe out the ex-agent and all those who aid him, including Parsons and any civilian that gets in the way.
Anchoring the movie in resolute fashion, Damon delivers another intense performance, absorbing information at a high rate of speed and translating that into both rapid analysis and breathless action. The combination of massive raw intelligence and swallowed grief and self-torture that inform Bourne is captured as much in Damon's clenched jaw and hard-set eyes as any dialogue (after all, who is left for Bourne to really open up to'), and he feels every bit the chariot driver here.
The film's narrative proper is very contemporary in its subject matter - a covert intelligence program targeting, and in some cases eliminating, US citizens - but returning director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Supremacy) keeps the focus quite tightly personal. He does this by staging large swathes of The Bourne Ultimatum in crowded public places, settings where Bourne is palpably uncomfortable, and forced to constantly react and improvise.
As always, too, Greengrass trades in small details that mightily inform character, and thus help elevate The Bourne Ultimatum beyond its genre roots. In a game of high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse at a packed Waterloo Station in London, a single quick glance conveys that Bourne knows the angle of a gunshot that has felled a bystander; later, after a ferocious close-range action sequence, the director indulges Bourne a moment of quiet, broken shame over the fact that he's been forced to kill again.
Cinematographer Oliver Wood, who's shot the entire Bourne series, utilises lots of dirty, over-the-shoulder coverage, and his handheld compositions retain their usual tint and anxiety. The camerawork also skews strongly to underline identification with Bourne.
If there's a complaint, it's that this aggressive, sometimes wobbly approach does wear thin when it comes to some of the movie's action. It matches the up close and personal nature of most of the film's hand-to-hand combat and panicky scenes of escape, but a few sequences would benefit, in both clarity and tension, from a more bolted down approach.
John Powell's music spans a wide range of styles, and incorporates Moroccan percussive flavors into its stressed rhythms. Moby's cathartic Extreme Ways, meanwhile, the series' unofficial anthem, makes a welcome return appearance during the movie's end credit sequence.
MP Beta Productions
Universal Pictures International
Paul L Sandberg
Jeffrey M Weiner
Tony Gilroy, Scott Z Burns and George Nolfi, from a story by Tony Gilroy based on the novel by Robert Ludlum