While still a rock-solid chunk of action-packed paranoia, one could sense a drop in quality from the last Jason Bourne sequel, "The Bourne Supremacy." Under the director Paul Greengrass, the series went from classic thriller conventions to an out-of-control handheld camerawork carnival, ratcheting up the adrenaline, but losing crucial audience participation. What makes "Bourne Ultimatum" such a furious success is how Greengrass has learned to wield his cinematic weapon, sharpening his aim beautifully.
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has grown weary of being hunted by government agents and wants closure. When a reporter (Paddy Considine) breaks open the Treadstone case, Bourne takes that lead and heads to New York City to confront the monsters who created the killing-machine side of him. On his trail is CIA honcho Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) and his team of tech experts, and Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), who is starting to sense that Bourne is more valuable alive than dead.
"Bourne Ultimatum" pinballs around the screen unlike any film in recent memory; it's a nuclear bomb of cinematic energy, suspicion, and limb-snapping that brings out the best in the character and the director. Now Greengrass has a justification for all his "shaky-cam" nonsense, as this Bourne adventure is about confusion and misdirection, not an artificial bleeding of tension. "Ultimatum" roars with newfound franchise control, perhaps not touching the elegance original director Doug Liman brought to the material, but taking Bourne to more unrefined heights of danger and exasperation.
Impatiently globe-trotting from the first frame, "Ultimatum" rarely stops to take a breath. Surely this is a sign of the thin plot, but Greengrass makes up for the lack of dramatic gravity by constructing an action-thriller that doesn't understand the meaning of pause. Pause has cooties as far as this production is concerned, and once Bourne senses his mission, it kicks off a series of cat-and-mouse suspense sequences, car and motorcycle chases, and the old standard of Bourne disarming and handicapping the fools who dare try to halt his progress.
For Greengrass, it's a more concentrated directorial job than his work in "Supremacy." Now appreciative of what audiences want, the filmmaker is more than willing to dish up platefuls of action, given pulsating life by composer John Powell. Of course, this means the return of his documentary-style cinematic standards, but if watching "Supremacy" made you sick, "Ultimatum" should just leave you queasy; Greengrass dials down his frenzied instincts a smidge to let the audience actually enjoy the movie. However, once Bourne goes into punch mode, the edit count goes ballistic and the visual stimulation is sometimes too much to swallow; the chaos diluting some interest in what's happening onscreen.
Still, it's hard to resist such dynamite sequences of destruction, such as Bourne using a police vehicle to stage a demolition derby in the streets of New York, or the film's centerpiece: a trip to Tangier that leads Bourne into a fight for his life, dashing through apartments "Ferris Bueller" style to track a lethal assassin.
Beefing up the plot are Strathairn and Allen, who dig into the government stooge roles with relish. The franchise has been built around people underestimating Bourne's survival skills, and "Ultimatum" has no shortage of those exquisite moments, given new life by these acting pros. It's still Damon's movie, and he performs the rage with crusty gusto and a weighty sense of guilt. Yet, the fun of the movie lies with Allen and Strathairn, who give Bourne plenty to gun for.
As explosive and unrelenting as this cinematic energy drink is, it's more a treat to see the Bourne series return to a level of quality that nearly matches the first film. You might need a barf bag again to survive the experience, but "Bourne Ultimatum" is worth the rolling waves of nausea.
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