Director Paul Greengrass’ gangbusters visual style, together with a sharp script by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns, and George Nolfi, provide a satisfying conclusion (unless they’ve got another sequel up their sleeves) to this intelligent series. Ultimatum takes steely-eyed superspy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) to the upper echelons of his quest to uncover his own identity.
Bourne’s is a reverse quest as it were, one that leads him from the netherworld of his amnesia, back to himself as he traces the origins of his nature, his killer instincts. He treads dangerous terrain, though, as those involved in creating his identity now seek to destroy him, deploying assassins at every turn, in every corner of the globe, as Bourne wends his way, in Ultimatum, from Russia to New York City, with stops in London, Madrid, and Tangier, back to the inner sanctum of the CIA, where those responsible for his existential crisis lurk.
On Bourne’s trail this time around is the ice-cold, by-the-book CIA director Noah Vossen (played with chilly professionalism by the top-notch David Strathairn) who’s willing to do whatever it takes to eliminate Bourne and keep the covert carte-blanche tactics enjoyed by his bureaucracy from public record. Off-balancing Vossen’s cold-bloodedness is Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) whose shark-like drive to capture Bourne is gradually tempered by conscience as the utter venality of those she works for dawns on her. The moral symmetry thus laid in place, Greengrass and company set Bourne loose through Europe, onward to America, following the bread crumbs of clues laid down by an investigative journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Consadine), and, later, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), the CIA operative sympathetic to Bourne for reasons never clearly disclosed, yet tantilizing just the same.
Damon has taken us shrewdly from the blundersome, scatter-brained Bourne of the first installment to Ultimatum’s more assured, tactful version, in forward velocity in every scene. He wears the role confidently, with authority, and matches up capably with the intelligence of the Bourne screenplays as well as the excellent performers he plays alongside — from Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and Franke Potente of the series’ first half, to Strathairn and Allen of the second.
But the heart of the beast is Greengrass’ pulsating style. While I found the director’s jittery, faux-documentary camerawork too expressive for its own good in the second film, The Bourne Supremacy — which seemed too jarring a shift from the clean, crisp style that distinguished Doug Liman’s direction in Identity — Greengrass’ trademark fevered camera and editing suits Ultimatum to a tee, possibly because the stakes in the larger story are now on par with it. In fact, Ultimatum boasts what may well be among the greatest action sequences ever shot and staged — a hyperkinetic foot chase across the rooftops and balconies of a Tangier neighborhood as Bourne pursues a fleet-footed, acrobatic assassin (Joey Ansah) who has Nicky in his cross-hairs. It’s a bravura, breathless combination of camerawork, editing, stuntwork, and performance, culminating in a fight sequence that not only thrills but brings chillingly to the surface Bourne’s opposing halves: the man vs. the killing machine.
Ultimatum takes Bourne to the narrative conclusion of his search for self. The movies strip his identity, bit by bit, to nearly nothing. But what lingers, finally, and why the series is so appealing, is the enduring sense of romantic adventure, a feeling that, though all seems lost, there is much left to re-gain for Bourne. Or whatever his name happens to be.
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns, George Nolfi
Cast: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Paddy Considine, Edgar Ramirez, Albert Finney, Joan Allen, Joey Ansah, Colin Stinton