August 17, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

We're nearly at the end of the summer- all our teacher friends are going back to work, my wife is preparing her syllabus, cargo shorts are on clearance at Target, and the Halloween candy has arrived at Stop & Shop. After a summer of disappointing three-quels (Spider-Man 3, Pirates 3), a truly kick-ass three-quel has finally arrived: The Bourne Ultimatum is the best action movie of the year, and one of the best three-quels of all time. Ultimatum is as good or better than Bourne 2, which was much better than the good-but-not-great Bourne 1.

In some ways, this film fits the same format as the first two movies: Bourne is chased across the globe as he seeks out the truth, while the CIA spooks in the nerve center under-estimate him at every turn. This time, Bourne comes out of hiding when an intrepid reporter Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) turns up some fresh leads on the origins of Treadstone, the CIA black op which created him. Bourne makes contact, and CIA deputy director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) intends to do anything to keep a lid on the story. Vosen brands Ross and his source within the CIA as traitors. When Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) points out his slippery slope of secret-keeping, she asks "When does it all end?" He barks back "When we win." If that's not an indictment of "if you're not my friend, then you're my enemy" policies, I don't know what is.

In Supremacy, Brian Cox played the evil father figure role much like his part in X-Men 2. In this film, in a total casting surprise, a certain five-time Oscar nominee portrays Bourne's original initiator, the doctor who made Bourne into the brainwashed assassin. He's so grandfatherly in his demeanor towards Bourne, that the subject of their conversations is all the more creepy, compared to when Chris Cooper barked at Bourne in the first movie.

Julia Stiles is brought back, which is implausible plot-wise, but thankfully she is not over-used. Some kind of prior relationship is only hinted at, and their dialog is thankfully brief. The wordless exchanges are potent, particularly when Stiles cuts and dyes her hair to change her appearance, which evokes the same scene with Franka Potente from Identity.

What keeps this movie from feeling redundant are the inventive and clever action set pieces. As an action connoisseur, I can easily think ahead of the plot and see outcomes a mile away. I want to be surprised, and I want to see action and thrills staged in new ways. A cat-and-mouse chase in Waterloo station, London, is smart and fresh, as Bourne guides a journalist through a gauntlet of agents by remote control. A motorcycle and foot chase around Casablanca is thrilling in its reality- it's not necessarily Matt Damon throwing himself through windows and racing down alleys, but it feels like it's all really happening to someone. Finally, a demolition derby in midtown Manhattan demonstrates what really happens to cars when you smash them together. I've been watching some late-1970s Bond movies recently on cable, and I have really appreciated the car chases. They're very obviously really cracking up these cars, and they stick the camera right in there. Ultimatum and Supremacy have that feel.

I didn't see Supremacy (2004) until the I rented the DVD in the spring of 2006. In anticipation of seeing Ultimatum in the theater, I rented both Bourne 1 and 2 via Amazon Unbox on my TiVo. We watched Bourne 1 on Monday, Bourne 2 on Tuesday, and Bourne 3 on Friday. What a week of ass-kicking! (Somerville Theater)