Over the last six years, the three Jason Bourne movies have reinvigorated and revolutionized that action hero thriller. See the impact they’ve had on the James Bond and Mission:Impossible franchises by watching the most recent movie from each. Bourne is still the big dog, though, and his latest movie keeps pushing the bar upwards.
Franchise momentum is hard to keep going; just look at the Pirates of the Caribbean mess. The Jason Bourne movies have not had that problem and The Bourne Ultimatum is the best of the trilogy. It’s also one of the best action movies since The Bourne Identity back in 2002, and, with the possible exception of star Matt Damon’s Ocean’s 13, the only summer threequel that lived up to the hype. Although knowledge of the earlier films will help, it is not required thanks to some expositional catch-up sprinkled in at the beginning.
Director Paul Greengrass jump-starts the movie with Jason Bourne (Damon) being pursued in Moscow after his meeting with the daughter of his first victim in The Bourne Supremacy. Bourne escapes, naturally, but remains committed to finding out who he is and how he was turned into the ultimate killing machine. A rouge CIA agent with knowledge of Bourne’s history is talking to a British reporter (Simon Ross) and Bourne heads to London to find the reporter and get him to reveal his source. The CIA, now represented by Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Stratharin), is hot on Ross’ tail. When Ross and Bourne intersect and Vosen sends all of his “assets” (read: killers) after Bourne, Bourne knows that he’s close to finding out the truth of his origins.
The action then slam bangs from London to Paris to Madrid to Tangiers to New York City with Bourne barely one step ahead of his counterpart assassins (Edgar Ramirez and Joey Ansah), high-tech survelliance, and local cops in every location. He ends up stumbling across Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), a CIA logistics tech featured in the first two movies, who is given a bigger hand in moving Bourne to his final destination. Also moving from hunter to semi-helper is Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), a CIA chief who is increasingly uneasy at Vosen’s methods of killing anyone and everyone who is connected to Bourne.
The highlight here is not the plot, although it is thankfully more straightforward than the previous two films, but the incredible action and tension. Greengrass had some missteps in The Bourne Supremacy related to making everyone ill with his shaky camera work and quick cut editing, but here he is firing on all cylinders. Using his usual heavy reliance on hand-held documentary style filming, the action sequences come one after another, last seemingly forever, and keep your eyes glued to the screen for every last second. The battle between Bourne and Ansah’s Desh in Tangiers involving scooters, bombs, a rooftop chase, and then hand to hand combat using a book and an ashtray could be one of the most tension filled and creative action sequences ever. Most things are shot using good old fashioned stunt men and the CGI is kept at a minimum. It gives the action a gritty close-up realism with almost no moments of the “hey, that just looks fake” we get from franchises like Harry Potter and Spider-Man.
Damon has become the prototypical action hero for the first decade of the new century. Doubting and unwilling to kill for no reason, he can still kick amazing amounts of ass. He is blessed with seemingly unlimited energy and ability but also the cool intelligence that shows him moving with an economy of effort, every move planned in advance. He also portrays Bourne’s regret with a minimum of words and gestures, rather than overwrought hand-wringing. This movie is all about moving forward towards the truth, with a suitably creepy Albert Finney waiting at the end.
There are a few false notes, especially the seeming allegiance shift of the Bourne ladies, Landy and Nicky. Stiles is good (as is Allen), but seems to lose her voice near the beginning of the Tangiers chase. For fun, try to time at what point Nicky simply stops talking and never says another word. Also, the almost buffoonish aspects of Vosen’s behavior near the end of the film undercut him as an intelligent formidable foe up to that point. Those minor issues don’t begin to mute the impact of the tension Greengrass puts in nearly every scene. You will barely have a minute to catch your breath from the last chase when the new one starts to build. This is the blueprint for the action movies we will be seeing for the next five to ten years.
The Bourne Ultimatum is being released on a single disc, which might lead you to think there isn’t much there. This is far from the case as the DVD satisfies in every possible way. The look and sound are excellent and a small amount of high quality extras enhance the viewing experience.
Paul Greengrass provides an excellent commentary. Although his speaking style could charitably be called “subdued,” he avoids almost all of the fawning and extraneous blathering that kills many commentaries. This is information-packed stuff. Greengrass discusses the pacing, tempo, tone and editing of the film so much you feel like you are getting your Masters degree in how to make an action movie. He sometimes repeats himself and a little more direct information on the challenges of filming certain scenes would have been nice, but this is solid work.
The extras kick-off with 12 minutes of deleted scenes. All of them were likely cut for pacing reasons as they tend to be talkier without much action. They do include additional information about somewhat underdeveloped characters like CIA Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn). While the scenes themselves are decent, the presentation is not great. There isn’t any explanation as to where they are supposed to fit in the movie and no optional commentary from Greengrass exists to explain why they were cut. You do get to see one of the better lines in the trailer which does not appear in the film, “trying to kill him and failing just pisses him off.”
The lengthiest extra is called “Man on the Move” and can be viewed in five segments or as one 25 minute featurette. The five major location shoots outside of America are given about five minutes each. The cast and crew talk about filming in Berlin (standing in for Moscow), Paris, London, Madrid, and Tangiers. Most of the comments come from people like producers and other production people, but the unique circumstances of filming in places like Waterloo Station and in Tangiers on Ramadan are interesting to watch.
One of the best action scenes in this (or any) movie culminates with Bourne and Desh fighting in a Tangiers’ apartment. That scene is discussed in detail in two five minute featurettes, “Rooftop Pursuit” and “Planning the Punches.” The first covers the technical aspects of shooting Bourne’s run across the Tangiers’ rooftops, mostly using a cable camera. The second shows the planning, rehearsal, and discussion of the apartment fight, including the use of the props like the book and the ashtray.
The other big action sequence, the driving chase through New York between Bourne, Paz, and Vosen’s men, is also given two featurette’s: “Diving School” and “New York Chase.” The first is about three minutes and focuses almost entirely on Damon’s stunt driving training. Damon actually drives in some of the scenes and is shown doing things like 180 degree spins and complicated skid parking. It’s impressive that he can do it all pretty well, although they clearly didn’t show the hours of practice that went into that. The second featurette is about 10 minutes and explains how the New York driving stunts were done, sometimes with stunt drivers on top of the car so Damon could be shown inside. It’s all great background for the scenes in the movie.
A good collection of extras with no real filler combined with a great movie make this an excellent disc and a good value by not tacking on a likely unneeded second disc. The commentary and featurette’s work together to give good background on all the major aspects of the movie. Like the movie itself, the DVD operates on the "less is more" philosophy and they compliment each other perfectly.