So much for the first 10 minutes, goddamn.
Here's what's up: Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), "security correspondent" for The London Guardian, has been tipped in Turin about a black-op CIA program code-named Blackbriar, the mere mention of which on a cell phone flags some terrifyingly competent post-Patriot Act software. Enter a shady, warmongering CIA bigwig (David Strathairn) and a sweet, nonviolent one (Joan Allen), plus various background über-spooks (Scott Glenn, Albert Finney). Bourne gets caught in the middle when he blips on the grid in pursuit of Ross, whose 411 on Blackbriar may finally explain why he kicks so much ass.
Adapted from Robert Ludlum's novel by a trio of writers who never met a cloak-and-dagger chestnut they didn't swallow whole, the story of Bourne's quest for his origins is often as formulaic as a dry martini shaken, not stirred. But where Bond movies are juiced by a conflict of egos, the Bourne adventures are all about competing intelligence systems as manifested through action scenes. In the case of Ultimatum, make that flabbergasting, mind-boggling, next-level action scenes.
Ultimatum is structured around three gargantuan cat-and-mouse pursuits, each of which pits the extensive, elaborate, high-tech eyes and ears of the CIA against the mobile, intuitive, ultra-alert mind of a single (super) man. The excitement of these sequences has less to do with stunts (first-rate) or spectacle (best car chase ever) than the tango between these two intelligences -- and the ways in which the spectator is invited to the dance.
In an astonishing Waterloo Station sequence, where Bourne attempts to make contact with and protect Ross, director Paul Greengrass establishes the CIA surveillance network in tremendous detail -- video monitors, field agents, secret microphones, digital schematics. He then supercharges the suspense through Bourne's detection and circumvention. What's exhilarating here is the clarity of design, the cleverness of its thwarting, and the way the filmmaking immerses the viewer in the whole process.
Greengrass' first Bourne effort, Supremacy, was one of the few movies to justify a spasmodic handheld-camera aesthetic by keying to its controlling consciousness (a freaked-out amnesiac), thus placing us in an equally jittery state of mind. Ultimatum refines this participatory dynamic even further.
"Bravura" doesn't begin to describe Greengrass' skill in mounting these complex sequences. This is, simply put, some of the most accomplished filmmaking being done anywhere for any purpose.
Not that Ultimatum lacks an agenda; it's actually more overtly political than Greengrass' last film, United 93. Bourne is the action hero as blowback -- black sheep of the black-op set, figured in terms of post-9/11 protocols. His early deprogramming is repeatedly linked to the contemporary icons of humiliation (black hoods) and torture (waterboarding). Strathairn's CIA agent defends his methods as necessary until "we've won," appropriating the counterintuitive rhetoric of the "war on terror."
But Ultimatum doesn't pretend to be anything other than make-believe. As a political statement, United 93 was defended as a critique of government failure -- a rebuttal to the flawless anti-terror tactics of 24 -- but you could claim the same for any number of military yahoo movies. What's troubling is 93's pretense to objectivity, the claim of being as close as possible to an authoritative (even authorized!) recreation. United 93 and The Passion of the Christ are basically the same movie for different audiences.
Ultimatum doesn't have that cross to bear. It's responsible only to the code of the blockbuster. Concentrating on an effective dramatic resolution may explain why the political conclusion is delivered with such unexpected force: The allegory is unforced. The entire Bourne trilogy has been a maze of intrigue and double-crosses winding to a final face-off with the Minotaur: the beast that made Bourne who he is. What (and whom) Ultimatum ultimately confronts flips the standard conspiracy thriller on its head. Greengrass gets there so deftly, it's enough to make yours spin.