Directed by Paul Greengrass
As a film, The Bourne Ultimatum is a great example of the writing truism that the secret of the craft lies in what you leave out. It’s also a great demonstration of the magician’s art: distracting the audience is where the real skill lies. Any one of the movies in the Bourne series is a good example of both.
If you were around in the decade of the 1980s you may recall seeing the Bourne books everywhere — Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum. There were also other books by author Robert Ludlum everywhere. You’ll also recall that in their paperback form they were the size of bricks.
They contained a lot of writing.
Each movie in the Bourne series is an example of leaving out everything but the essential. They drop so much material they could probably make ten films out of what was excluded.
Screenwriter Tony Gilroy did an incredible job in tackling these Bourne books and making screenplays out of them. It is one thing to drop material, it’s quite another to determine what remains in.
What ends up on screen is essentially straight lines. Each movie is a straight line; taken together, they form a straight line.
(It’s really only in the first movie, The Bourne Identity, that a second storyline is included, Jason’s relationship with Marie, and even that is minimal and used to reinforce the major storyline.)
When you don’t have to make pit stops for other story threads, you can focus on getting from A to B. The character starts here; they end up there. Straight line.
The best example in the series is The Bourne Ultimatum, the last of the three, where it shoots out of the gate from the word go and pauses for breath only once.
Picking up the story only minutes after the previous movie ended (The Bourne Supremacy), Jason Bourne is limping and running in Moscow. Who is chasing him is irrelevant. Why he is running is irrelevant. The pace is so fast, the movie jazzed with so much energy, we don’t have time to think if anything we are seeing makes sense or not.
This movie is as close to a literal rollercoaster ride as it gets. A rollercoaster on steroids.
The story has been established through the first two movies though we get enough of it in Ultimatum that it really isn’t necessary to see those films to get the storyline. Jason Bourne recalls his past only fitfully. He doesn’t know who he is but he knows he is some kind of trained killer — and he’s not happy about it.
While he is pursued in the movie, he is also the pursuer. He wants closure and is headed back to “where it started.”
From the previous movies, the visual style has been established. This time, we get it again but cranked up a few notches. There is the erratic, hand held camera look. There is frenetic cutting. And there is the camera placement within the action to communicate the sense that we, the audience, are in the middle of it all.
If I recall correctly, there is really only one scene — between Matt Damon and Julia Stiles — in the middle of the movie where it pauses, as if for breath, before it re-engages and leaps back into the action.
Adding to the adrenal feel of the movie is the music. Were you to close your eyes as the film plays you would be forgiven for thinking you were in a club with the beat thrumming incessantly. The music reinforces the movie’s incredible pace.
The Bourne Ultimatum is also a movie that sees itself as part of a film franchise and identifies the elements — beyond the pace and visual style — that characterize the films: numerous top-ranked actors (such as Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn and Albert Finney) and multiple uncommon locations (Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Madrid, Tangiers etc.).
The movie doesn’t obfuscate about what it is: a franchise action movie. It’s a summer blockbuster. That is what it sets out to be and that is what it ends up being. Like Jason Bourne, it is singularly focused.
Because it is, it is one of the best action movies you can see, just as the entire Bourne series is one of the best series of films you’ll come across. If you sleep through any of these movies, especially this last one, The Bourne Ultimatum, seek professional help.
(Note: It’s worth having a look at the movie’s full credits. The list is so long it rivals the actual length of the Ludlum novels.)