Monday, September 03, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

The verdict: A cracking actioner, requiring just the right amount of suspension of disbelief. The Bourne Ultimatum is that rarest of movie entities: a third instalment that improves on the previous two.

The rating: 8/10

The third instalment of the Bourne trilogy trundles along at such a confident, relentless pace, it would almost be easy to dismiss it as a solid action movie... you know, good popcorn entertainment. Well, I'm happy not to describe Ultimatum only in those terms, simply because it provides an absolutely top night at the flicks.

Be prepared though folks, because this movie is a tale of perpetual motion, right from the off. From the amnesiac hero at it's centre, on the run from the CIA and the NSA, to the hand-held camera style favoured by the movie's director, the now surely A-list Paul Greengrass, everbody in this movie is in a hurry to get about their business. Right from the opening scenes, which pick up as the second movie ended, there is an atmosphere of little time to waste: the dialogue comes thick and fast, and the action, set almost in real time pace, is smart, realistic and adrenaline-fuelled.

This movie follows a similar template to the previous instalment: Bourne is trying to re-discover his identity while being pursued by the CIA, who use cutting edge technology to try and catch up with him before he uncovers a number of dark secrets that their top brass would prefer to keep buried. While Bourne jets from one exotic location to the next, the CIA agents pace up and down in ultra-modern offices, using any means necessary to try and dispose of him, and getting quite irritated with each other as they continually fail to do so. Meanwhile, Bourne must follow a lukewarm trail of limited information from one life-threatening situation to the next, and keep literally just one step ahead of his pursuers all the while.

Matt Damon is convincing, and David Srathairn is excellent as the morally questionable chief investigator. Joan Allen reprises her role as chief pacer in the office, and does have a little more to do in this instalment, but the real star of the movie is the action. The set-pieces never feel overly contrived, as they are all deceptively simple. A few car chases, a chase on foot across rooftops in Tangier, a sniper in Waterloo station, every set-piece is filled with tension, close shaves, and unexpected twists, leaving the audience with just enough time to gasp before the next moment of high drama erupts onto the screen.

The soundtrack pulses with just the right amount of intensity when building tension, but daringly, many of the action sequences occur without any musical backing. When Bourne is fighting hand-to hand, we hear every swipe, every grunt of pain, and every bone crunching hit. When Bourne is in mobile pursuit, we hear tyres screeching, sirens wailing, glass smashing, and shouts of passers by. Overall, the sound in this Bourne movie really is second to none, and heightens the impact of the action scenes.

The dialogue is terse and urgent, and as with the action, there is little waste, with everything happening at real pace. However, there is some depth below the surface in the exchanges we see on screen, with the high-powered executive banter in particular displaying a real wit that you're unlikely to see in many actioners. A moment that sticks in my mind is when David Strathairn's character lambasts Joan Allen for criticising real-time judgements from an armchair, and I interpreted this almost as a challenge from the screen writers to the audience, as if they were saying, go on then, what would you do differently in this situation? Because Bourne generally stays one step ahead, and also because of the pace of the action, we never get the opportunity to poke holes in his decisions, and this is a major strength of the movie.

There are no cheesy one-liners, arched eyebrows, invisible cars or signature theme tune here (unless you count that Moby song.. which I don't). Bourne gets hurt and is regularly in mortal danger, but when he has to fight, he can fight. When he needs to drive, he's as comfortable on a scrambler as in a cop car. He capably speaks foreign languages, he knows how to lose a tail and he uses pay as you go mobile phones to avoid surveillance. Nothing in Bourne is beyond the boundaries of possibility, and that's what pulls you into wanting him to win out in the end.

If this movie is overlooked for Oscar next year, it will be a real crime. Direction, sound and script are top notch here and are the definite stars of the piece. Damon, too though, is understated and quietly effective in the lead role, and Strathairn and Allen have a very watchable sparring relationship, with a real undercurrent of tension (thankfully not of the Unresolved Sexual type).

What more can I say folks, go see it, you'll have a blast. You'll need a little suspension of disbelief, but not much, and for a movie that asks for so little, it delivers in spadeloads. I'm not sure if I want them to make a 'Bourne IV' (the door is left wiide open), but as long as Paul Greengrass continues to make movies of anything approaching this quality, then I'm going to be very happy to keep watching.

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