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Action Alphabet: 'The Bourne Ultimatum'

If you think that the reason that Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum, the original finale of the Bourne trilogy, is because it is a taught and thrilling story of singular sharpness, then you couldn’t be more off base. Not to debase the film, but its merits have little if anything to do with narrative accomplishment – completely ignoring the fact that the kind of selective amnesia that the eponymous hero is plagued with doesn’t exist, the running-from-the-bad-guys-while-trying-to-clear-my-good-and-innocent-name ploy is rudimentary at best, a big, fat MacGuffin decorated in deceptively clever-looking bells and whistles. But the truth is that none of that matters. The dramatic and beautifully creative action sequences of this movie are so well-crafted, tinkered and finessed to adrenaline-fueled perfection, that the story’s propensity for being farfetched is not just a blithe annoyance – it is completely ignorable if not totally forgivable, and in an era of cinema obsessed with realism, that’s saying a whole, whole lot.

Photos from 'The Bourne Ultimatum'
Photos from 'The Bourne Ultimatum'
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in 'The Bourne Ultimatum'

But for the sake of clarity, Ultimatum picks up right where previous film The Bourne Supremacy left off, with Damon’s former CIA special-ops badass evading all those trying to bring about his death, as his existence is proof of illegal government activity. Bourne attempts to make his story public with the help of a London journalist, but the writer is assassinated by the CIA higher-ups to prevent the spread of sensitive information. Bourne then looks for help in former CIA contact Nicky Parsons, who also becomes a target for aiding Bourne. Meanwhile sympathizer Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) works tirelessly to help Bourne without being brought down by the CIA first. (There are a whole lot more sub-plot points that weave in and out of each other, but that would be a huge waste of your time and mine.) While the story of the righteous soldier keeps the continuing thread of the story knitted together, the quality of this film is elevated by elements far removed from narration. When I think of this movie, I think of it as a ballet: you don’t watch it for the story, you watch it for the production and most of all the dancing.

What I love most about Greengrass’s approach to Ultimatum is how it is completely unencumbered by any sort of visual paradigm – there are no pre-packaged framing devices or blatant uses of staging, only the most dizzying albeit blissfully full-throttle action photography by way of hand held cameras since Saving Private Ryan. The documentarian your-are-there shooting style is quite prevalent in action movies nowadays, but few get just the right balance of steady to shaky like this film does. And in the case of this movie it does double duty, both reinforcing the tremulous nature of Bourne’s situation as well as obliterating that fourth wall so it is as if the audience is running in Bourne’s tow while tracking down an assassin through the street on Tangiers. All of the Bourne movies (even the maddeningly flat-affected fourth installment) have glowed with superb action scenes and this especially includes all of those chases, but it wasn’t until Ultimatum that that free spiritedness was truly perfected. If I didn’t know any better, I would just as quickly assume that they told the actors to just run after each other while the camera followed along. The same concept comes through in a particularly cool hand-to-hand combat scene between Bourne and a rival assassin when the former grabs a hardcover book and the latter grabs a candlestick and they go at each other – nothing fancy, no flashy choreography, just the violent immediacy of two steely killers having a life-or-death brawl. Its astounding to watch and so very, very awesome.