Review: The Bourne Ultimatum (dir. Paul Greengrass, 2007)

In this high-tech digital age, the makers of high-profile action movies sometimes like to brag about how they used real cars and real stunts — even when some of the defining images in their films couldn’t possibly exist without pixels on a screen. (Yes, Live Free or Die Hard, I’m pointing at you and that spinning airborne car that just happens to miss our hero by a hair.) But every now and then, along comes a film that really seems to have happened in front of the cameras — and The Bourne Ultimatum is just such a film.

The action scenes in this, the third and apparently final installment of the Bourne series, may have had a digital assist here or there, but if they did, you never notice. What you do notice is the constant action, the fights and chases, and the cars that seem to crash not just into each other but, at times, into the cameras themselves. If the pictures weren’t staying in focus, there are times you’d swear the lens itself was contributing to the showers of shattered glass.

As before, the film concerns Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), a former CIA assassin who lost his memory after a botched hit job. The first time we saw him, in The Bourne Identity, he was floating in the water, and the new film makes much of the role that water has played throughout this series, visually and symbolically, as an agent of forgetfulness but also of renewal, as an agent of death but also of life.

In the first film, Bourne emerged from the water with killer reflexes and no memory of his past, and his amnesia, combined with the humanizing friendship that developed between him and a German civilian named Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente), gave him the opportunity to put away the old man and become someone better, someone new — water as baptism. (The series has inspired no shortage of “Bourne again” puns.) In the sequels, however, Bourne begins to remember sins from his past for which he feels a need to atone — and here, the water that erased his memories brings to mind the River Lethe, a stream in Greek mythology that made those who drank from it forget their previous lives. The Greek word for “truth,” aletheia, draws its name from this river and literally means “unforgetfulness” — and that’s an apt term for the sort of truth that Bourne pursues in these sequels.

It is tempting to say The Bourne Ultimatum picks up where the previous film, The Bourne Supremacy, left off, but the truth is more complicated than that. Supremacy ended with an epilogue in New York that took place several weeks after the climax of the story proper in Moscow — and the first two-thirds of Ultimatum take place between that climax and that epilogue. This has the effect of casting the closing moments of Supremacy in a completely different light, and it just may be the most daring re-invention of a movie’s final scene since Back to the Future Part II.

Marie was killed in the previous film, so the new film begins with Bourne visiting her brother (Goodbye Lenin!‘s Daniel Brühl), giving him the bad news, and promising him that he will track down the people who are ultimately responsible for her death. Coincidentally, a British reporter, Simon Ross (In America‘s Paddy Considine) has begun publishing articles on Bourne and the shadowy CIA branch for which he once worked, and these stories contain information that could only have come from a high-level source. These articles attract Bourne’s attention — perhaps if he knew who Ross’s source was, he could learn more about his own past — but they also attract the attention of yet another shadowy branch of the CIA, whose boss, Noah Vosen (Good Night and Good Luck‘s David Straitharn), is all too eager to eliminate anyone who poses a threat to the CIA and the secrecy surrounding its operations.

And so Bourne and the CIA bump into each other once again, and after that, the movie is essentially a series of chases and near-misses and various cat-and-mouse games up until the very last scene, as Bourne tracks the clues to Spain, Morocco and finally the United States, while the CIA sends various assassins (called “assets”) to kill him and/or the people he’s trying to reach before he gets any further. Along the way, Bourne receives covert assistance from Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), a CIA agent, and Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), a CIA deputy director, both of whom have become increasingly disillusioned with the agency since we last saw them.

Directed by Paul Greengrass with the same cinema verité realism that he brought to The Bourne Supremacy — and to historical films like Bloody Sunday and United 93 — the new film has an immediacy that keeps you fully engaged. The script, by Tony Gilroy (who also worked on the previous Bourne films), Scott Z. Burns (a producer on An Inconvenient Truth) and George Nolfi (The Sentinel), lapses into super-computer fantasy and pedestrian dialogue once in a while, but it’s mainly there to provide the bones for the real meat of this film, which is the action scenes, shot by series veteran Oliver Wood with his usual frenetic hand-held urgency and edited by fellow veteran Christopher Rouse in a way that brings perfect order to seeming chaos. John Powell’s score keeps things tense as the various characters pursue each other, but what is most striking about the film is how much more intense it becomes when the characters catch up with each other, the music stops, and the fighting begins.

The Bourne Ultimatum is that rare threequel that stands up quite well to the movies that came before it, and it is easily one of the most satisfying action movies of the summer, but it pales somewhat next to its predecessors — and that is mainly because Bourne’s humanity recedes into the distance somewhat.

The first two films revolved around Bourne’s relationship with Marie and his memory of that relationship after she is gone, but there is nothing in the third film that humanizes Bourne in quite the same way (though his scenes with Nicky do begin to point in that direction). The climactic scenes here revolve around the interesting question of what it would take to turn a man into a killing machine, and whether one can ever truly submit one’s moral compass to the dictates of other people — but Bourne, despite his moral reawakening, remains a machine, capable of meeting any obstacle and surviving any attack (not unlike the Terminator, really).

And the problem is not only that Bourne has fewer friends. The justice he pursues in this film is more institutional in nature, rather than the personal, even restorative justice that he sought in the previous film. The Bourne Supremacy ended with Bourne seeking the daughter of one of his victims, and confessing to her what he had done. The Bourne Ultimatum, on the other hand, is about exposing government secrets and making other branches of the government aware of what is being done in the government’s name — all of which makes for a less personal story.

The previous film ended on a note which suggested that Bourne did not need to know his previous life, because he had left that behind and moved on to something better. The new film is more ambiguous. It was David Webb — Bourne’s real name, as revealed in the epilogue to Supremacy — who decided to become Bourne. So would it really be a good thing if Bourne became Webb again? On a dramatic level, the previous movie gave us a certain closure, but the new film opens things up again — even as it ends on a note which suggests the franchise is well and truly over — and for this viewer at least, that ambiguity makes the new film a little less enjoyable.

3 stars (out of 4)

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Talk About It
Discussion starters

1. Do you think it is ever morally acceptable to kill someone on someone else’s orders, even if you do not know why that person is supposed to be killed? How would you compare and contrast Bourne’s situation to that of, say, a regular soldier?

2. How does forgetting the past liberate you? Constrict you? What sorts of secrets have you had to uncover or remember in order to make things right?

3. In the previous film, Bourne met and apologized to the daughter of one of his victims, personally. In the new film, Bourne and those who help him seem to be after a higher sort of justice. Which do you find more satisfying: personal or institutional justice? And why?

4. Marie’s brother asks Bourne if he killed the man who killed Marie. Bourne says he did. Is Marie’s brother seeking revenge? How do you think he would have reacted if Bourne had not killed the man? What do you make of the way Bourne answers the brother’s question? How does he feel about what he did?

5. What is the difference between revenge and justice? Are there instances of both in this film? Discuss. Is it “revenge” even if you aren’t trying to kill the people in question?

The Family Corner
For parents to consider

The Bourne Ultimatum is rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action, including assassinations, shootings, fistfights, stranglings, car crashes, and so on. The characters also utter a few four-letter words and say a few names in vain.

A version of this review was first published at Christianity Today Movies.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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