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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #234: The Bourne Ultimatum

Whenever I despair at the thought of yet another PG-13 action films in which the characters can’t bleed too much, curse, or have gratuitous sex, I turn to the Bourne franchise. With its cloak and dagger plot, high-tech toys, extremely smart intelligence operatives, and beautifully choreographed action sequences, this is one of the best action franchises of the last decade. Throughout each film Jason Bourne has fought assassins with a pen, a magazine, and in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) he tops that off by using a hand towel to choke a guy. These aren’t R rated films, but there is still plenty going on from start to finish to keep any action hound happy.

Like many undercover agents Jason Bourne has travelled all over the world, and in an odd parallel as I watched his movies I was doing a lot of travelling myself. I saw the first film while living in South America, the second a year after moving back to Canada, and the third a year after starting my studies at the University of Sherbrooke. Actually, I watched it while in Quebec City for the summer and also later that year I got the trilogy for Christmas. Since then another film has been released, sans Matt Damon, so who knows where I will be by the time the very last one is released. In the meantime it’s a lot of fun watching the first three movies over one weekend as supporting characters suddenly have bigger roles and the filmmakers keep getting more and more creative with the stunts.

Ultimatum finds amnesiac killer Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) trying to piece together his origins after the events of the last movie. With revenge on his mind, he sets off after British journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) who has been doing a story on the shadowy branch of the CIA responsible for Bourne’s training and illegal killings. Reflecting the real-life capability the U.S government has when it comes to surveillance, the CIA hacks into Ross’ life to find out everything he knows. The sighting of Bourne on one frame of a surveillance camera is enough to sound the alarm and you once again have a room full of people frantically typing at computers while a superior is barking a variation of the phrase “find this guy!”

This time around that honour falls onto Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), a CIA top dog who brags about the power of a branch of the CIA that can kidnap, spy on, or kill people without any red tape or impunity. The end justify the means for him, and if to protect the agency’s secrets he has to kill Bourne or anyone who comes into contact with him then so be it. Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), who last tried to track Bourne, sees things differently and tries to help him as spies do: through secret codes in phone conversations. I love a movie where you have to pay attention to every word the characters say. Miss something, and you might be out of the loop.

When there are no conversations about the morality of the CIA’s action, things go into full-on fight mode. From a London train station to an office building in Madrid, and from the rooftops of Tangier to the streets of New York City, Bourne cleverly dodges a lot of bullet. Ultra quick editing is a staple of today’s action films, often with mixed results. When Michael Bay does it, it’s a jumbled mess. However with Paul Greengrass, who directed both Supremacy and Ultimatum, it’s neatly organized chaos. The camera follows Bourne as he runs on a roof, picks up a rag, uses it to protect his hand when climbing a ledge covered in glass, and ultimately crashes through a window to engage in a hand-to-hand fight with an assassin. Seeing that the first time it gets your heart pumping. On repeat viewing you admire the editor’s piecing together of the sequence.

A supporting character that has really interested me throughout the series is Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). In the first film she was part of the team tracking down Bourne and watched as he ordered the CIA to leave him alone. In the second one Bourne abducted her and pointed a gun in her face when he thought she could be withholding information. In Ultimatum they run into each other in one of those odd “what are you doing here?” moment. (Spoiler alert) This time she decides to help him saying things were “difficult” between them when he still had his memory, but they decide to part ways.


If Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass do ever decide to return to the franchise after the decent but lesser The Bourne Legacy it would be interesting to see what happened to that character. Also, given the Edward Snowden’s revelations that have come out in recent years, it would be interesting to see where the filmmakers could go next in terms of real-world events influencing the films. It is incredibly disturbing when reality is way worse than fiction.    

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