Some talented filmmakers try to play a Hollywood game, churning out a big-budget commercial product in exchange for a smaller, more personal and artistic venture. Steven Soderbergh, for example, will alternate an Ocean’s 13 with a Bubble or a Solaris. (Maybe he should stick to the blockbusters.) For most, it’s a losing game, as it seemed for Paul Greengrass with his 2004 follow-up to 2002’s Black Friday, The Bourne Supremacy. Greengrass stayed true to his leftish politics in the big-budget potboiler, but he grafted them on awkwardly and strayed from the taut action, concise characterizations, and nuanced relationships of the first film in the franchise, Doug Lyman’s The Bourne Identity (2002). He’s learned a lot since then, however. His United 93 was one of the best films of 2006. And his The Bourne Ultimatum is the best action film so far this summer.
VIDEO: The trailer for The Bourne Ultimatum
As with its predecessors, Ultimatum takes a tip from its protagonist by losing almost all memory of its past — in this case, as a Robert Ludlum bestseller (this is the worst-written book adapted for the screen since Everything Is Illuminated), retaining only the title and the basic concept. Super-assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) suffers from amnesia and a guilty conscience; he’s killed strangers but he doesn’t know why or for whom, and neither does he know who he is. To learn the truth, he must hopscotch around the world (the film is like surfing the Net, but to real places), from Moscow to Madrid, London, and Tangier, tracing leads, getting the crap beaten out of him, suffering the occasional blurry, wobbly flashback to a Gitmo-like trauma, but all the while wiping out the opposition with dazzling ingenuity and remorseless determination.
Meanwhile, the weasels back at the CIA who created him have been following his every move, almost. Despite their ability to track him down almost instantly through Patriot Act–enhanced surveillance methods, they can’t quite finish him off as he gets closer to his origins. In London, the massive network of CCTV cameras pursues him through the streets and into Waterloo Station, in a way that reminded me of the surveillance endured by Patrick McGoohan in the ’60s TV show The Prisoner. Back then, that surveillance seemed far-fetched. Now, it’s the way things are.
But Greengrass’s intent isn’t so much political as existential. Although Ultimatum strays into Manchurian Candidate territory, Bourne is not just a passively conditioned victim, as in that film — he’s in charge of his own destiny. Damon’s stolid but explosive performance provides some of that substance. Greengrass adds more through the unlikely vehicle of his action sequences. Most films in this genre chop their action scenes into bits and edit them into a kinetic and incoherent montage. Greengrass shoots them in long takes with a handheld camera, the stumbling, erratic image pumping up the suspense and excitement but affording enough clarity that you can almost follow what’s going on. Kind of like Bourne himself, as he plunges ahead like a juggernaut, guided by instinct, dread, and a suspicion that though the truth might set him free, it won’t absolve him of accepting responsibility.