It’s rare that any film series has the second film surpass the first; even rare that it maintains that quality in the third installment. In that way the Bourne series is an anomaly as the third film is easily the best installment and one of the best action films of all time. Paul Greengrass and his crew have nailed it, crafting one of the most exciting, well paced and thoughtful action films of all time.
Just moments after the last film ended we return to Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), making his escape from the local cops. While bandaging himself up from the last fight he remembers another bit of his past, something about the beginning of his life as a spy. His personal mission once again has him in the sights of Deputy Director Pam Landy (Joan Allen), although this time she’s not so sure he’s the badguy. Her coworker Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) shares no such reservations and has a history of more violent operations. But like everyone who’s gotten in Bourne’s path he’s got no idea what he’s dealing with.
This time Jason Bourne is going back to the source. It’s time to dig up the past, make sense of this Treadstone business and figure out where it all began. Of the three installments this one probably has the most compelling past as Bourne uncovers what events led him to become the superspy he once was. But he’s not the only one digging up his past as reporter Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) is running a story on Bourne’s past.
Bourne decides to meet the reporter at Waterloo station and it’s here where we get our first impressive action sequence. Paul Greengrass raised the bar with this film as he centers the three acts of the film on three impressive action sequences that must have been technical nightmares. From the crammed streets of New York City to the confined spaces of Tangier, each location presents a unique problem both to the filmmakers and our hero. Each sequence is among the best of their kind and the Tangier sequence is a masterpiece in action, suspense and pacing.
But the Bourne films have never been just about the action and the film has a hefty amount of drama. Once again Pam is butting heads and while dealing office politics, now with the gung-ho Noah Vosen. The two characters have similar motives but go about them in different ways. Watching them work together, contradict each other and attempt to navigate themselves in a better political position throughout the film is just as exciting as the action, because this time Pam is fighting to find the truth.
A lot of credit must be given to Joan Allen and David Stratharin for giving fantastic performances. Both are bold, unflinching performances and you can see the power struggle between the two with simple glances. I seriously wondered how the two actors worked together as they seemed to constantly be moments away from strangling each other to death. Matt Damon has fit into the role nicely and as Bourne has come to grips with his abilities, Damon has displayed more bold assertiveness with his performance. The last noteworthy performance is Julia Stiles returning once more as Nicky Parsons, the former handler of Treadstone operatives. She’s able to convey both the stoic and lonely sides she’s developed working with the operatives in a short span of time.
The film pairs Bourne and Parsons together and the story becomes a bit of a redux of The Bourne Identity. Only this time it’s with Nicky instead of Marie and the relationship is a lot different. Bourne takes on a distant, tragic tone while Nicky keeps it rather monotone. It’s hinted at that they had a past before Bourne suffered from amnesia but he clearly doesn’t remember a thing. Some moments are eerily similar to Identity such as a scene set at the diner or a sequence where Nicky cuts off her hair and dyes it. Yet the tone is significantly more depressed and muted.
You could argue that they’ve essentially just made the same film three times and, even though you’d be wrong, the series does feel like a reiterative development of a style of action films that has finally come to full bloom. That isn’t to say The Bourne Ultimatum is flawless, but it’s so well crafted that you’ll likely forgive its shortcomings. This is one of the best action films ever made and still the pinnacle of a style that has a master of one, a master named Paul Greengrass.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing