Extreme Ways: The Supremacy of THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007)

Ten years after its initial release, does Paul Greengrass’ trilogy capper still hold up?

In a very general sense, the patterns that form the path of a narrative trilogy tend to bend homeward at its ending. In many modern trilogies this idea - the concept of ‘home’ – could be a physical place or something more spiritual or psychological. Often, the impetus of the start of a trilogy is outside forces invading the security of our heroes’ ‘homes’, whatever form that may take, but the imprint left by these ‘homes’ on the characters often comes to define the way their stories ultimately play out. We see this in the potent ‘journey’ trilogies of The Lord of the Rings or the original Star Wars – in the former the return to the sanctuary of the Shire, the latter being the uniting of the survivors for whom a new home is found in their companions. But we also see it in less conventional narrative trilogies – Toy Story 3 bringing us to a new but spiritually similar home to Andy’s; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’s ride into the sunset; hell, even the Austin Powers trilogy brought everyone together as a family by the end. There is something cathartic and satisfying about the pleasantly circular shape of a homecoming trilogy capper – it suggests that the journey is the destination, but the home you left is the answer. It is a curve that is hard to resist, and one that the Bourne Trilogy embraced in its final installment.

As time has gone on, it seems that many have landed on Supremacy being the Bourne Trilogy's crown jewel (or at least, it was a trilogy before Greengrass and Damon went and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’d the damn thing with the incredibly misguided Jason Bourne) and although I am not of that opinion, it is largely unquestionable that the impact of Supremacy on action cinema would be felt for years to come. Between Supremacy and Ultimatum, Greengrass would arguably bring the since-maligned ‘shaky-cam’ action directing style to major prominence. It is easy to forget just how revelatory this felt at the time – when this wasn’t a technique being used by every copycat filmmaker in the years to follow, it felt intense, exciting, absorbing. Greengrass covers his action sequences extensively, and his use of shaky-cam feels full of intent, even if in retrospect they don’t always come together as effectively as they otherwise could. At the time, it was a distinct, practically auteur choice that aligned the Bourne series with being a ‘mature’ action film – this felt real, in a time of increased cinematic sameness and apathy, particularly in the at-that-time floundering American action cinema genre.

There are debatably better, more accomplished action films of the era – arguments could be made for a range of films, from the Kill Bill series to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to The Dark Knight – but all of those bear the caveats of mixed-genres or a certain directorial flavour that prevent them from being considered as clear-cut ‘Action’ in the way the Bourne films did (the closest comparison I would consider would be 2006’s Casino Royale in terms of both quality and influence, and ultimately it comes down to personal opinion at that point as to the better title). Without the Bourne series, it is hard to imagine digital-heavy, shaky-cam action cinema taking off in the years following Ultimatum, nor the Eurocentric action thrillers of the Taken series. It also served as a reminder that blockbusters could be made from singular visual and directorial voices on massive budgets – something that filmmakers - including, most significantly Christopher Nolan - would further prove and improve upon in later years. Most of all, Bourne made a case that the more adult-minded these films were, the more financially successful they could become. Whether this was applicable to anything outside of Bourne is arguable, but it was a present ideology nonetheless.

Beyond mere technique, Bourne, and particularly Ultimatum, uniquely captured that feeling in Western society that paralleled the emerging techno-paranoia and ambivalence toward institutions that would come to define the years to come. Bourne is arguably the most accomplished of action-thrillers to tap into the post-9/11 crises of governmental oversight and the implications therein – and the ideological suggestions of a film in which a government black-ops killing machine gains autonomy and turns against the nefarious institutions that created him are palpable in their paralleling of NSA-fuelled insecurity in the idea of governments and their ability to work in the best interest of all people. Rather than fuel it, Bourne works as a kind of insular but resonant warning at the work both within Western governments being done in the interest of powers beyond regular citizens, but also as a suggestion of what the results of such meddling can have on a national populace who grow to distrust that their government works for them. Watching The Bourne Ultimatum ten years on, especially in its climactic puzzle-assembling final moments, is a uniquely thrilling but unsettling experience in the context of modern America, wherein the distrust of institutions and their pursuit of shady backroom tactics, whether justified or not, at least partially fuelled the animosity toward the established United States government.

The Bourne Ultimatum is the strongest film of the trilogy. While Supremacy contains the iconic Bourne moment (‘Get some rest Pam, you look tired’), Ultimatum is leaner, more streamlined and efficient, but also more technically accomplished. Significantly, there is far less murky (read: kinda boring) inter-governmental conflict over suspiciously named programs, less incidental side-characters to wade through, more of a focus on the emotional weight of Bourne’s story as its mysteries are finally brought to light. It is a well-oiled machine, every sequence feeding into the next in a chase-movie that makes great use of the established history of the character to deliver stand-up-and-cheer moments of heroism and weighty bits of development for returning roles.

A lot of that weightiness comes down to Matt Damon’s work as Jason Bourne. As the thematic (and actual) anchor for the whole series, Matt Damon’s performance is at this point so iconic that it is easy to forget how unlikely an action hero Damon was considered prior to (and even after) these films. Damon excels at playing an everyman (or subverting one, in The Departed, his best performance), and Jason Bourne is a character whose just-another-face-in-the-crowd vibe is precisely what makes him so intriguing. Damon plays him on just the other side of monotone, and it is a testament to his abilities as a performer that this never feels like anything less than a purposeful choice, letting the robotic physicality of his movements and the wall-like trauma of his past speak for itself.

Beyond Damon, the film makes great use of character actors in supporting roles. If Damon is the quiet heart of the series, Joan Allen as Pam Landy is the soul – the one friendly, conscientious and principled character in the government system – while Julia Stiles’ returning appearance as Nicky provides an interesting, capable foil to Bourne. Likewise, both David Strathairn and Albert Finney’s appearances here follow in the grand Bourne tradition of great character actors playing villainous suited government white guys (following the steps of Chris Cooper and Brian Cox), particularly in the case of Strathairn, who finds wonderful new shades of pithiness as Noah Vosen, a man who orders an egg-white omelette with the relish of a man branching out and breaking routine for the first time in many years.

It is not by any means a perfect film, however, and much of it has not aged especially graciously. The shaky-cam element, while era-defining, is nevertheless still dizzying and distracting, if not as intensely as it was in Supremacy. Greengrass seems more aware of this effect in this installment, however, and uses it to his advantage in moments of more directly conventional clarity – notably in a thrilling escape sequence coordinated by Bourne and featuring a clueless reporter (Paddy Considine) in the middle of a busy London tube station. The other great era-defining element of the Bourne series – its endless self-seriousness – is likewise somewhat exhausting, particularly for a premise that is admittedly built around a character’s amnesia, a plot device that will never not be at least a little goofy. Indeed, The Bourne Ultimatum, while upping its quota of fist-pumping moments of action-excellence, is still almost entirely laughless. Its humor – what there is of it – is almost always of the bitter, ironic vein and usually derived from Damon’s enjoyably matter-of-fact line readings in high stakes moments. Apart from a vivid splash of color as Bourne races through Tangier, the murky, drab grays and blues of the European and American locales serve to further this self-seriousness in a way that sometimes dampens the enjoyment of the watch. And unfortunately it is hard to overlook the fact that its aforementioned villainous government agencies angle is now less novel and shocking than it was when it was released, something that the film can’t really avoid but nevertheless weighs on repeat viewings.

Equally of note however, is that these quibbles serve to feed into The Bourne Ultimatum as a fascinating and singular historical document of modern action history, and the emotional and visceral impact of some the film’s more iconic moments resonates still. From the MacGyver-esque scene in which Bourne uses both a book and a teatowel to dispense of a would-be assassin, to the demolition-derby car chase sequence through downtown New York City that is very aware that it is essentially impossible to drive fast in the city without causing serious damage, or the breathtaking, poetic circularity of the ending, which mirrors the start of the series in Identity in several ways, and then builds upon it in several more. Alongside the obvious return to the ‘dark figure floating in the water’ image that opened the series, there is also the delivery of the line ‘Look at us, look what they make you give’ – a line given to Bourne in Identity by a fellow assassin and delivered to Bourne’s direct descendant assassin (Edgar Ramirez) by Bourne himself in Ultimatum – a direct example of the thematic impact of homecoming and torch-passing in the closing of a trilogy. The film’s ending wonderfully plays with expectation, and the idea that because Bourne’s story has come to an end, so too must he. As we watch him come back to life and swim back into the darkness, those iconic strings of Moby’s “Extreme Ways” reverberating around him, Ultimatum provides perhaps its greatest surprise – when Bourne came home, he found something like a happy ending.