After a summer-movie season full of bloated running times, pointless explosions and convoluted plots, Jason Bourne has arrived to save the day. The third (and allegedly final) installment of his adventures, The Bourne Ultimatum, has a relatively sleek 115-minute running time, although it also has a number of explosions and a twisty plot that can be difficult to follow if you haven’t recently boned up on the first two entries in the series.
But you should be doing that anyway, because 2002’s The Bourne Identity and 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy are two of the best thrillers of recent years, and Ultimatum continues smoothly along the path they established—a smart, exciting and stylish mix of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, modern over-the-top action movies and new-world-order espionage like TV’s 24. None of the action ever feels gratuitous, and everything that Bourne (Matt Damon) does is in pursuit of his single goal: to discover who he was and how he became the ruthless government super-agent he no longer wishes to be.
In the last movie, Bourne’s girlfriend was killed, and he was framed for the murder of two U.S. agents; after extracting a confession for those crimes from a high-ranking CIA official at the end of Supremacy, Bourne is still on the run from the U.S. government, determined to track down the people responsible for his training. He’s pursued by cagey CIA executive Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), who’s come to respect Bourne since the events of the last film. Her colleague, Noah Voson (David Strathairn), however, does not share her point of view, and wants Bourne terminated as soon as possible, lest he expose the dirty secrets of the CIA’s covert assassination program.
Strathairn nicely fills the role of quietly intense villainous bureaucrat essayed in the first film by Chris Cooper and in the second by Brian Cox, and Allen adds some interesting shades to Landy, who becomes increasingly allied with Bourne as the film goes on. Julia Stiles also continues to expand her role as low-level agent Nicky Parsons, completing a quietly impressive slow-burn characterization over the course of the series.
As strong as the supporting cast is, this is Damon’s show all the way, and he once again makes Bourne the perfect mix of tortured and determined. While Identity had the most angst to it, this film builds on the existential crisis that’s driven the entire series, with Bourne never sure if he can truly put his sinister past behind him and become the good person he knows he is (or at least wishes to be). As thrilling as it is to watch Bourne kick the ass of every operative the government sends at him, the real satisfaction comes in watching him struggle with his inner demons, never resting until he learns the truth about himself.
Along the way, though, there are some pretty damn awesome action sequences, and returning director Paul Greengrass wisely opts for some new twists on the series’ trademark chases rather than risk repeating himself. Identity’s masterful car chase remains the gold standard, but Greengrass comes pretty close to topping it on a couple of occasions: an unbelievably tense early sequence in which Bourne must guide an in-over-his-head reporter away from pursuers, and a late-film car chase that’s more like a demolition derby.
Ultimatum follows much more directly from Supremacy than that movie did from Identity, lending it a sense of continuity and purpose that unifies the series. Those intricate connections (nearly two-thirds of Ultimatum takes place in the space between the last two scenes of Supremacy) makes the ultimate payoff a satisfying end—assuming the producers don’t give in to greed (and summer-movie convention) and make a fourth film.
The Bourne Ultimatum
Matt Damon, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Julia Stiles
Directed by Paul Greengrass