The Bourne Ultimatum

Review of the film The Bourne Ultimatum.

Yesterday morning we went to see The Bourne Ultimatum, the third film in the series based on Robert Ludlum’s novels. All three movies are a lot of fun, although I think they go steadily downhill from the first one, The Bourne Identity.

This one starts near the end of the second film, The Bourne Supremacy, with Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) leaving Moscow and returning to western Europe. On the way he learns about a reporter, Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), who’s been collecting information about him. Ross has also learned about a project called Operation: Blackbriar, which has set the US government on his trail, headed by Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) and Pamela Landy (Joan Allen, back from the second film). Bourne contacts Ross, leading to confusion on all sides, as Vosen thinks Bourne was Ross’ contact, while Bourne isn’t sure what Ross had. The information he gets from Ross leads Bourne to Spain, Morocco, and then New York as he untangles the story of his origins as a government assassin.

The films are all marked by decent acting, a decent plot, excellent action sequences, and not much characterization. The visual look of the films are distinctive, with washed-out color palettes and special effects which don’t look like they rely much on CGI (I have no idea whether they do), which makes the films feel like a throwback to good old action-adventure films that aren’t trying to wow you with their technical prowess.

The thing I liked least about the direction was the tendency to cut rapidly between various angles during the action sequences. I think this technique worked especially poorly in this film, because the longer shots were so effective: Panoramic views of a whole scene, or a lingering shot of someone’s face, or a careful framing of part of a fight sequence. Considering many camera shots were done with “shaky-cams” (the notional opposite of a Steadicam), there’s already plenty of movement for dramatic tension, and the rapid cuts just make the action harder to follow, which doesn’t help anyone.

The most fun element of the films are Bourne staying one step ahead of his adversaries – who inevitably have far more resources than he does – simply by being alert and playing the game better. The scene in Waterloo Station here is just brilliant. Unfortunately the story is marred somewhat by some characters behaving rather stupidly. While the characters are only human, it just feels shoddy when characters seem to be acting like idiots for no good reason, while other characters seem uncannily smart.

Overall a good film, but not as good as the first two.

A few further comments – of a spoilery nature – behind the cut.

A few dumb things the characters did:

  • Neal Daniels (Colin Stinton) fleeing Spain for Morocco and using his own passport, enabling him to be trivially tracked. If anyone should have known better (and had a ready supply of fake passports), it’s this guy.
  • Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) sitting calmly at the coffee shop while Bourne and Desh (Joey Ansah) are having their face-off. Surely Desh was going to be alerted to the con they’d played on him, and therefore she and Bourne should have had a rendezvous point where she wouldn’t have been in danger?
  • Bourne calling Voson while he’s in Voson’s office, before he’d actually gotten away. Why? Also: The CIA can’t actually lock down their own building even when they know Bourne’s right there? Did Voson take every agent with him?

I was willing to overlook those points in order to just enjoy the ride. However, I was disappointed with the film’s revelation, which was that Bourne had volunteered for the program which made him what he was. Yeah, so? I hadn’t thought it was a big question whether he’d been coerced or volunteered (it never crossed my mind, actually); Bourne’s motives are that he’d been asked to do things that were really too heinous to be done even if he had volunteered, and that the CIA can’t leave him damn well alone but keeps pulling him into their plans.

(n.b.: I’ve never read any of the books, so I’m considering this only in the context of the films.)

Since Bourne and his Treadstone counterparts all exhibit borderline-superhumans skills, I was much more interested in seeing how they’d acquired those skills, and why no one else seems to have them. I guess the implication is that they’re not truly superhuman, just highly trained, but that’s not really the practical spin that the earlier films put on the agents from the Treadstone project. I suspect that the creators would like to leave this all a little blurry, which is disappointing.

Supposedly there won’t be any more Bourne films, and I think that’s probably a good idea, since I think the stories are getting progressively harder to swallow. Might as well end it while it’s still enjoyable and not too silly.

3 thoughts on “The Bourne Ultimatum”

  1. I am very hard-pressed to think of a sequel, or third in a series, that I liked better than the original.

    I agree with 2 of the 3 points above… I think the third is an amusing scene. Granted it doesn’t really add anything to the movie other than to show that Voson thinks he is in more control than he is – still amusing. 🙂

  2. About the books. I started the first one when it was published but quickly got bored and quit. I’ve read that the movies are not at all true to the books but that a TV miniseries with Richard Chamberlain was.

  3. The first book is pretty good, with the second, third (and now fourth/fifth, written by Eric Van Lustbader – Robert Ludlum died in 2001) decreasing in quality. (The books are firmly Cold-War-based; David Webb becomes Jason Bourne, freelance-assassin, to challenge and capture Carlos the Jackal. He gets shot while attempting to take credit for a Carlos kill, and when he regains his memory, he determines that he’s an assassin, and Carlos makes it look like he’s defected …)

    Ludlum books tend to be very much the same, with a few exceptions (The Road to X books are more comedic/intrigue, rather than action/intrigue; I liked the Bourne Ultimatium and The Gemini Contenders better than the rest); one lone man against a shadowy conspiracy races around the world to uncover the truth and stop something horrible. The scenes are all punctuated by catch phrases that get repeated throughout, starting as gibberish and gradually acquiring meaning as the hero discovers more and more about what’s going on.
    “The Man from Marseille! What do you know about The Man From Marseille!”
    “C is for Charlie and Delta is for Cain!”


    Anyway, I have most of them if you’d like to borrow them.

    As far as the movie goes, I liked it. I too disliked the fast-cuts-rather-than-single-shot-choreography approach, but I’ve disliked it ever since it was introduced. It makes the action harder to follow, and makes me less willing to invest myself in the scene. I was also surprised at how easily they found Daniels, but I could justify it if I worked at it. I also thought that if I were Bourne, I’d have grabbed the files, gotten out of the building, and then called him and told him I was in his office, but then we’d have missed another car chase :

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