Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"The Bourne Ultimatum" -- * * * *

Probably the best piece of pure entertainment to be released this summer, Paul Greengrass’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” opens by seemingly dropping us off in a movie already in progress. Immediately following the Universal Pictures logo, tense, familiar music blares, a quick subtitle informs us we’re in “Moscow, Russia” and our hero, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is already fleeing someone, and we have no idea who. BAM! We’re already immersed in the movie, without even realizing it, and all before the title even sprawls across the screen.

A seemingly never-ending adrenaline rush, and a remarkably intelligent and witty one at that, “Ultimatum” is by far the best film of the espionage thriller trilogy it concludes, as well as the best action movie of 2007. The “Bourne” films have turned out to be the rare film series that get incrementally better, and it’s just a genuine pleasure to watch a sequel that isn’t in any way a cash-in, but an enhancement and enrichment of what came before it.

Before you lump me in with the obsessive fans of this series and dismiss it as not your type of thing, be aware, I liked the first two “Bourne” films but didn’t quite get where all the love was coming from. “Ultimatum” is leaps and bounds ahead of both films, and fully deserves whatever box office riches may be headed its way this weekend. One also has to tip one’s hat to any movie that celebrates an action hero who’s at his most heroic when he exercises restraint.

The film’s success can mostly be laid at the feet of Paul Greengrass, one of the most brilliant filmmakers working today (who I was lucky enough to interview last April), who garnered a much-deserved Oscar nomination last year for “United 93.” Greengrass brought his craft and style to the last film in the series, “The Bourne Supremacy,” and paired with a better script this time around, he mines even deeper riches. There’s sharp dialogue all around, but it’s doubtful that the dialogue will be what people remember most about “Ultimatum.”

The film is jam-packed with thrilling, brilliantly staged action/car-chase/fight scenes, the best of which is an extended fight sequence between Bourne and one of the fellows chasing him that climaxes in a bathroom stall. Greengrass awesomely stages this sequence without any music, leaving us hearing nothing but the increasingly loud, jarring sound effects.

The main baddie this time around, a government agent deadset on killing Bourne, is played by David Straithairn (an Oscar nominee last year for his embodiment of Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck.”), and he’s just as welcome an addition here as Joan Allen was in the last film. The wonderful Allen is back as Bourne-sympathizing agent Pamela Landy, and the back-and-forth between her and Straithairn is worth the price of admission, and I think, worthy of their own movie. However, these two are only the highlights of the extraordinary cast assembled here, including Scott Glenn, Paddy Considine (last seen in “Hot Fuzz”) and Albert Finney.

Julia Stiles is also back in her biggest role yet, for those who dig her sort of thing (I find her consistently bland), and one musn’t forget Damon, the star of this show. Bourne has in all three films been sort of the steely, silent, troubled killing machine, but this time around, Damon has more material to chew on, and pulls off scenes that are trickier to play than one might think. For a film that’s admittedly more about the excitement factor than the emotional resonance, Damon lends the proceedings significantly more credence than a lesser actor might.

While it’s never a safe bet that a movie will be the “last” in its series if it makes a lot of money, Damon has gone on the record that this will be his last Bourne film, and if that holds, it does end the series on a perfect note and everyone involved can be proud of themselves (including Moby, whose “Extreme Ways” closes the film, just as it did the first two). And while it may seem an insignificant detail, “The Bourne Ultimatum” deserves praise of some sort for running a very bearable and appropriate one hour and 45 minutes, all the more refreshing in a summer of bloated, self-indulgent blockbusters.

Giving my liking (as opposed to loving) of the first two "Bourne" films, nobody was more surprised than me to find how much I loved this movie. Spy thrillers are generally “not my type of thing,” but then again, they generally don’t get made with this quality of filmmaking, writing, acting and pulse-pounding excitement. As the first three-quel this year to actually deliver, “The Bourne Ultimatum” is the one movie this summer that gave me a genuine “rush” and a palpable giddiness that I thought was all but impossible to have after a nine-hour work day.


Blogger Patrick Smith said...

Agreed. Saw it the night it came out. Loved it, although I loved the first two, too.

5:21 PM  

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