Being a fan of spy novel master Frederick Forsyth, I have naturally sampled the wares of other authors who write in the genre. Some bring something of their own to the table… Tom Clancy‘s books are much heavier on the modern techno/cyber war elements, for example. Some are more like pale imitations of Forsyth. Robert Ludlum, the author of the “Jason Bourne” books among many others, falls somewhere in between. His books follow the Forsyth pattern of strong, formidable, often reluctant heros who have few equals going up against large organizations that are corrupt, evil and destructive, with sweeping descriptions of exotic locales and plenty of intricate plot lines that unfold slowly. I’ve liked some of Ludlum’s book and disliked others. The Bourne books are probably his best, anchored by a strong character in Jason Bourne.
Wait… isn’t this supposed to be a movie review of “The Bourne Ultimatum”? What does the Ludlum books have to do with the movie? The answer is: absolutely nothing, and that’s no exaggeration.
In the first movie, the only story elements that had anything to do with the book of the same name was the fact that this man was found floating in the Mediterranean Sea, is rescued by a fishing vessel and is found to have amnesia, and further discovers he’s a secret agent. After that it’s almost all different. A few scenes are similar to scenes in the book, but the story is totally changed. In the book, Bourne eventually discovers he was a covert operative for Treadstone, who had been under deep cover as a European assassin named “Cain”. His mission was to smoke out a rival assassin named Carlos the Jackal, and kill him. After many adventures in searching for his past, eventually he simultaneously finds Treadstone and the Jackal in New York, and gets his man while coming to terms with Treadstone. The woman who he meets and who helps him is named Marie, but she’s a Canadian economist not a German punk drifter. Many of the names are the same, but the story involving the assassination of the political exile is all movie invention. The second film “The Bourne Supremancy” bear no resemblance whatsoever to the book of the same name, which deals with Chinese revolutionists and an impostor committing assassinations under the Bourne name. Ditto “The Bourne Ultimatum”, which really just borrows the title of the Ludlum book.
Does any of that matter? No, not at all. The movie is it’s own entity, and if Ludlum (or in this case his estate’s controllers, as Ludlum died in 2001) doesn’t care that the character and names of his books are used to sell a totally different story, then who should? Nobody. The movie is the movie and the book is the book.
With all that said, I was looking forward to “The Bourne Ultimatum” because I enjoyed the first two Bourne movies and this one had gotten a number of positive reviews. I did enjoy it but I did not think it the best of the three. That has to go to the second movie, which had the best plot, action and overall entertainment. “Ultimatum” gets bogged down a bit by several convoluted plot points, a few too many easy coincidences, some rough acting and most of all trying to hard to stick to “the formula”.
The movie opens not at the end of the last one, but at the point where Bourne is making his escape in Russia near thend of “The Bourne Supremacy”. We get to see how he gets away, and in an ingenious twist find out later the scene at the very end of the second movie falls into place near the end of this one… making most of this film take place actually within the time frame covered in the second movie. That’s a clever, Tarantino-ish use of time bending. Bourne is now after the rest of Treadstone, which is the first of the doesn’t-quite-make-sense storylines since he exposed the supposed head of Treadstone in the last film and left him to commit suicide. Why, then, is he still after Treadstone? That is never very clear. Now the oddball coincidences start. CIA surveillance in England pick up a single word (“Blackbriar”) on a random cellphone conversation and trace it to a political reporter from a U.K. newspaper. Bourne meanwhile reads an article by this reporter about him in a newspaper while on a train, although we have to presume he’s read previous articles and is on his way to see the guy already. Inexplicably the single word “Blackbriar” launches a full CIA surveillance of the reporter (wow, I have to be careful what I say on my cell… maybe the CIA has a black op called “lemonade” and I might get snatched by spooks while talking about yesterday’s picnic). By odd coincidence, Bourne and the CIA arrive at the same time to see the reporter, and action ensues. That’s just one example of some badly conceived plot elements that just seem lazy in how they set up confrontation. Wouldn’t it have made more sense that this reporter was already being watched due to his articles on Jason Bourne, a supposedly top secret US operative who is inexplicably the subject of a three part series in a British newspaper? Oh, well. The ensuing action is what makes these films so engaging, and the sequence in the train station is as good as anything in the other films.
I mentioned the formula… the other Bourne films feature Jason out in “the field” on his lonesome battling other operatives who are directed from a pitch-dark command center somewhere that contains cranky CIA bosses stalking around a room full of keyboard-clacking nerds and big screen TVs. The visual trademark of the franchise is the handheld and zoom/focus camera work that adds an edgy, tense feel to the proceedings. Personally I could do with a little less of the herky-jerky camera shots. I have motion-sickness by the end of the first hour, and a splitting headache by the end of the film. Some is good, and even great, but this is too much. Also getting a little old are the command center scenes, full of inane dialogue and dumb questions. if CIA personnel are really as stupid and helpless as the people filling these rooms, we are in big trouble. When a code of five numbers intercepted when given to Bourne are asked to be investigated, one helpful CIA genius lets us know it’s a zipcode in some small midwestern town. Nice work, Sherlock. There are many other examples. I think all these little problems amount the big problem that the director Paul Greengras and the screenwriters abandoned the semi-plausible plots of the first two movies for some cheap shortcuts to maximum action. I love the car crashes and fight scenes as much as the next guy, but I need a little better reason for them than some I was presented with here. The story just doesn’t fit together as tightly as the first two did.
Oh, but the action. In one scene Bourne is jumping from building to building though windows in an old section of a European city. Spying his quarry in the next building, he runs through a room, out an open window, thorough 20 feet of air and through the glass of the opposing closed window while the camera literally follows behind him the whole time. That is one of the best action stunt shots I’ve ever scene in a film. No CGI, by the way. The fight scene next is the best of the series. It’s brutal and rough without any of the overused Matrix tricks we see so much these days. The camera work makes it hard to follow, but not seeing every punch adds to the effect. The car chases were also spectacular, but I still don’t rate them as high as the the original film’s chase in the streets of Paris. These are more destructive but that one was a white-knuckle job.
As far as acting, Matt Damon is again terrific as Bourne. He’s a believable action guy and can pull off the complexity of a man missing large parts of his life and wanting to get some answers. Julia Stiles returns as Nicky Parsons, the CIA secretary who was little more than a cameo in the first two films. This time she does more than just look concerned with that weird baby-mouth lip thing she has. She plays a significant part in this movie and is tied in to Bourne’s past in a more complete, although unsaid, way. David Strathairn is a covert CIA commander who you love to hate, and he is a very good actor so his character is particularly loathsome. Joan Allen returns as CIA flunky Pam Landy, and she doesn’t fare much better in this film than the last. She’s saddled with some of the lamest dialogue in the films, and her character never really connects with anyone. She’s falls very short of being the intimidating CIA big shot she’s supposed to be, and just kind of wanders from scene to scene in a daze.
Overall the movie is a fun ride, but it’s not the great ride some of the reviews led me to believe. It’s a worthy addition to the Bourne films, but doesn’t quite live up to the standards set be the first two films. I wish MAD would have done a parody of any of these movies… they take themselves very seriously and would have been fun to poke holes in.
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