It’s no surprise that the most visually striking and assured installment in the Bourne franchise is the best. Director Paul Greengrass’ over-the-shoulder, around-a-corner handheld compositions stand as excellent micro-examples of the peeping and surveillance that is perpetual in The Bourne Ultimatum, the third and (should have been) final entry in the spy thriller trilogy. Although Identity director Doug Liman’s more classical form fit perfectly with that film’s slightly pulpier, slightly more romanticized look at espionage, Greengrass’ hyper-stylized digital form delivers a sense of immediacy that would fuel a 2-hour thriller on its own, never mind that Ultimatum‘s script is the tightest of the trilogy (written primarily by Tony Gilroy, who penned the first two as well). This thing cooks.
Although the plot ultimately proves to be fairly straight forward, following Bourne as he follows the trail of a snitching operative in order to finally fully uncover who he is and who he was, ditto for the sub-set of the CIA behind it all. These details are important, however. Not only does Ultimatum earn its label as a “thinking man’s” action thriller, with its examination of what happens to toadies maneuvering within a corrupt system, as well as raising questions of national security and the obvious moral dubiousness of initiatives such as Treadstone, but it also contains a fully formed, logical world in which its characters feel believable and real. This is an impressive feat from the filmmakers, as Bourne (with Matt Damon giving perhaps his best turn in the role) has always been a static character. His quest for answers has served as his dramatic need since the 2002 original, but here the pieces of the puzzle coming together not only resolve Bourne’s own desire for knowledge and understanding, but the public’s and ours as well. His narrative is a microcosm of the larger superstructure of governmental systems.
Ultimately though, these elements all coalesce into a pure thriller that’s paced like a bullet and packs a punch. That’s the primary focus, and the result is visceral and relentless. Even the smallest of characters are imbued with stakes (a rival agent’s two-second expression atop a roof carries with it more emotional weight than any scene in this year’s Jason Bourne). Perhaps even better are the set pieces – Ultimatum showcases Bourne’s tactical cool better than any of its predecessors (I’m thinking of an early-on sequence that takes place in an airport). If nothing else, the Tangier set piece alone would put the film ahead of 75% of the decade’s action thrillers, but fortunately for us it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and The Bourne Ultimatum stands as an excellent resolution to an excellent trilogy. You won’t find a more emotionally charged image in a thriller than that final shot.