Monday, August 06, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum / ***½ (PG-13)

Jason Bourne: Matt Damon
Pamela Landy: Joan Allen
Noah Vosen: David Strathairn
Nicky Parsons: Julia Stiles
Simon Ross: Paddy Considine
Ezra Kramer: Scott Glenn
Dr. Albert Hirsch: Albert Finney

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns, and George Nolfi, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum. Running time: 111 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence and intense sequences of action).

There is a fight scene in “The Bourne Ultimatum” that had me gripping the armrest with an intensity that may have left finger indentations. A sense of uncomfortable curiosity pervades the viewing experience of this film that is something akin to watching a car accident. And, in fact, there are several of those to be witnessed in what is easily this summer’s most exciting cinematic experience. While rogue CIA hitman Jason Bourne is cool as ice throughout this wall-to-wall action piece, it is the audience that must bear all the anxiety of this extreme thriller.

In this third installment of the series, Jason Bourne is still on the run, his past still a mystery. How did he become one of the most wanted men in the world by the very people who trained him? How could he have such incredible knowledge of the world of espionage and not remember how he gained his knowledge? And just who is Jason Bourne really? As the film opens, he is beginning to remember snippets of images from his past, but none of these memories make much sense out of context.

Joining Matt Damon (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) as Bourne are some returning cast members and the usual new set of government conspirators who make Bourne the focus of an intense death hunt. David Strathairn (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) portrays Bourne’s primary pursuer, CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen, head of a special division with executive privilege over who is considered for execution as a national security threat. This division is backed by CIA Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn, “The Silence of the Lambs”), who places Pamela Landy (Joan Allen reprising her role from “The Bourne Supremacy”) on the task force chasing Bourne, based on her previous experience with his case. Albert Finney (“A Good Year”) also shows up in a role pivotal to Bourne’s past.

Director Paul Greengrass (“United 93”) wisely populates the supporting cast with actors who are skilled enough to know what kind of film they are in. The action takes the front seat in this thriller and performances can only distract from that purpose. These are actors who don’t perform, they just are. It is particularly impressive to see the incredibly overlooked Strathairn and Allen working so closely together in roles that could easily involve boisterous melodramatic delivery. These two play their tension subtly and without pretense of their own importance to the events as they play out. They know this is Damon’s game, and their underplayed gamesmanship makes the game itself the focus.

It is also good to see Julia Stiles (“The Omen”) return as Nicky Parsons, a character that the series has only teased us with until now. While she had only a couple of scenes of dialogue in the first two installments, Parsons becomes a full-fledged victim of the Bourne syndrome; she has to run for her life from assassins just for speaking with the man. Her action sequence—the white-knuckler I mentioned earlier— is particularly suspenseful. But then just about every frame of footage in this actioner is knuckle-whitening.

So while the cast may be excellent and mysteries may finally be solved, it is Greengrass’s direction of the action that makes this the most thrilling ride of the summer. His kinetic, signature hand-held camera work keeps the movie quite literally nonstop. There may not be a movement-free shot in the picture. The car chases are out of sight and will spin you around just as many of the cars get spun. And the hand-to-hand combat is just as frenzied. Might I suggest some Dramamine before entering the theater?

As punctuation to the fact that this film is all action, the dialogue seems to have gone the way of the spaghetti western; there’s just enough to tell the story. And, truthfully, there isn’t a whole lot of story to tell. Bourne’s motivation hasn’t changed since the first couple of minutes in the series opener, 2002’s “The Bourne Identity”. “Who am I? Who is responsible?” And when the answers come, it just proves that it’s the journey that is important, not the destination. Sure, the answers to those questions are satisfying, but let’s not kid ourselves, we’re watching for the action not the answers.

“The Bourne Ultimatum” is easily the best of the series because it has given itself entirely over to the exercise of being a pure action picture. And while it’s true that you won’t find a more adrenaline-fueled rush in a cinema this year, I hesitate to use that hackneyed phrase, because “The Bourne Ultimatum” is the furthest thing there is from cliché in the action genre.

Buy it: Jason Bourne movies, books, and music

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