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The Bourne Ultimatum

August 20, 2007

Here’s a quick recap in case you’ve not seen the previous Bournes; abandoned, betrayed.

OK, we can move on now.

This has been the three-quel year, of course, and has anyone really considered the Big Hitters to have done the business? Universally panned and derided as money-making franchises, it seems that the ‘3’ really wasn’t going to cut it after all. But then, no-one really factored the third Bourne movie into the equation. Oh, come on, they didn’t. Even Die Hard (4?!) got more column inches. The Bourne movies constitute different parts of a very unusual beast indeed; big, powerful, almost-blockbusters, there is nevertheless more than a hint of indie cool wrapped up in each one.

It helps that Matt Damon’s amnesiac ex-CIA killer, although rock hard and athletic, isn’t typical action hero material. He still has a boy’s looks, despite the carved-from-teak body, and is not overtly intent on engaging you – the audience – within his demonised world. He’s immensely focused, an existential carapace surrounding him, with none of that perfect Brosnan cool or wise-cracking Connery wit, but he’s totally within himself, the perfect single entity. Bond might have had that in the books, especially after Vesper Lynd’s death in Casino Royale, but cinematically he was always too distracted by frippery and fanny. Bourne just sets off. Wham, maybe Bang. But no Thankyou Ma’am.

Determined to discover who it was that created the Treadstone programme (the black ops assassin group that Bourne found out he was a part of), the action begins in a violent chase off a Moscow train and through a passenger terminus. One whispered word to a Guardian journalist later, and we’re in London. Paddy Considine, darling of the indie film crowd, eschewing his terrifying turns in Dead Man’s Shoes and My First Summer of Love, gets caught in the crossfire of Bourne trying to find out what he knows, and the CIA trying to find Bourne so that they can eliminate him. Considine, jumpy and panic-stricken, forms the nerve-wracked centre of a hugely tense set-piece in the middle of rush hour Waterloo. How they filmed this is beyond me, but it’s a technical marvel, jittering and intense, the briefest visual clues clamping you to your seat as you follow three and then four parties as they career around the chaotic station concourse.

With aplomb, we’re then off to Madrid, then Tangiers, where one of the best chase and fight scenes (surely set to become an industry standard) takes place across the rooftops and through the streets. There is no disguising the punishing work put into this scene, and it’s punishing for the audience watching it, too. Bourne jumps from roof to roof and, at one wildly disconcerting moment as he hurtles across twenty feet of air and down into and through a window, the camera goes with him, just behind his shoulder. You land out of breath, amid the mad crashing of glass and blinding curtains, and straight into a bone-rocking punch up. Massive hits pummel the protagonists, and the ending is gruesomely realistic and suddenly silent, like the deaths in Zodiac, your fists clenching, wishing it to be over.

Afterwards, rather than re-arrange his tux and straighten his dicky bow, Bourne looks at his bruised and battered hands. Later, as he reads a file about Treadstone he muses on the people he’s killed; there are no conclusions, but it’s hauntingly done, Damon’s steely gaze softening into something much more frightening.

After Tangiers, New York, and a climax I won’t ruin by describing, but if you’ve never been in a multi-car pile up…well, you might have an inkling as to what it’s like after this.

It will surprise no-one who has seen United 93 that director Paul Greengrass has injected something very unusual into this movie, which that film had in spades; a feeling of utter helplessness. Blindingly fast edits, hand-helds done to a tee, siftcam mayhem, it’s all here, and it’s remarkable. From the moment the Universal sun comes up over the earth in the logo after the BBFC certificate, Bourne never relaxes. He runs. All. The. Time. And you’re with him, feeling those hits coming in, relentlessly.

Obviously, you know who’ll come out on top – most of the time – but when you’re in the moment with each scene, you lose yourself. This is a thriller that thrills, and how often do we get them?

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