The loss of his voice notwithstanding, Matt Damon would be fine if his windpipe was crushed or his mouth forced shut by lockjaw. He would earn less money, but he would make the world’s greatest mime.
Now, Damon has more believable urgency and turmoil in his brow, walk and eyes to suggest something simmering beneath the surface. As Jason Bourne, he’s done even less talking. Bourne wants to be spoken to, about the reasons why the amnesiac spy lived a life of trapping, plotting and killing on orders. He needs all those skills to survive and atone for everything it’s cost him — which is more than he knows — but would give anything to erase them.
The idea that ghosts like Bourne are haunted too, and with such stillness, allowed the Bourne film franchise to move beyond The Bourne Identity’s indifferent, self-conscious coolness. Once Paul Greengrass took directorial reins on The Bourne Supremacy and, now, The Bourne Ultimatum, these adaptations of Robert Ludlum’s novels boosted their boasts of impressive action.
Like other Greengrass films (Bloody Sunday, United 93), it masterfully blends cinematic sights, sounds and silences to do much more than entertain. It leaves deep psychological imprints. Very much the second half of one story spread across two films, Ultimatum continues where Supremacy’s pacing, plotting and planning left off and provides the year’s most vibrant, vital film.
The story so far: Bourne knows he was part of Treadstone, an off-the-books U.S.-government death squad. In an attempt to keep Treadstone’s dirty deeds buried, Bourne was framed for murders and lost his girlfriend, Marie, to an assassin’s bullet.
All the car chases, explosions, judo chops and gunplay attracted media attention, as British journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) is writing a series about Bourne’s mysterious circumstances and Marie’s violent death.
Bourne avenged the murder, but Marie rushes back in anguished memory floods. So, too, does a clinically lit room where Bourne’s loyalty is questioned. Tracking Ross, Bourne learns a new name, Blackbriar, added to a thorny bramble of black-ops outfits. Picked-up chatter on Blackbriar draws slimy CIA agent Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) into Bourne’s pursuit. Bourne’s been deemed an agency threat, but Pamela Landy (a returning Joan Allen) might become a Gerard to his Kimble.
Fleeting, darting cameras make us scan scenes with Bourne’s eyes and his jittery uncertainty of who swings around corners or peeks from rafters. And for a movie about manipulated information, Greengrass unleashes one bit of wily misdirection late in the film with a bold chronological gambit.
Like Supremacy, it’s also filled with sit-up-straight action sequences that pound pavement and pulses without ever knocking us silly. It starts with a synchronized evasion and extraction mission in a crowded London Underground station, ends with another gnarly car chase (this time in America) and presents, as its centerpiece, a mind-blowing sprint through Tangiers, Morocco.
This gritty, gutsy chase on feet, mopeds and rooftops concludes in a spit-and-sputter grapple in a tenement bathroom that’s exhilarating and exhausting. If Ultimatum can’t prove there should be Oscars given for stuntwork and second-unit direction (which handles action scenes), nothing can.
As fascinating as Bourne’s fieldwork is, so is whether the CIA’s pursuit will end in negotiation or elimination. It’s what happens when crafty, classy character actors like Allen and Strathairn are allowed toe-to-toe conflicts. One ends with “It ends when we’ve won!,” a vague, shapeless statement chillingly relevant to real-life political uncertainty that neither the actors nor the movie let dissipate.
It’s no mistake that the tip of someone’s desktop flagpole is so pointy. Supremacy and Ultimatum have built up to a big question that aware Americans ask all the time: What’s worth throwing on grindstones to keep sharp the weapons of self-interest? For Bourne, it becomes an imperative to wrangle patriotism back to the right side in a pull between its purity and perversion.
As expected, his resolution comes with both raging adrenaline and somber penance (Bourne’s Catholicism isn’t coincidence). Throughout the film, Damon boasts an expression of clenched-tears exasperation. His raw rage is, in part, our own, and it screeches as loud as all the motorcar metal and metropolitan mayhem in the year’s best film so far.