Posted by: Jeff Lester on August 10, 2007
The first moment in The Bourne Ultimatum I truly loved comes about fifteen or so minutes into the film, when Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is about to meet with reporter Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) about articles Ross has been publishing about Bourne and his mysterious past. Seeing what’s about to go down, CIA uber-clench Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) places a call to have both men eliminated. The call reaches a man (Edgar Ramirez) sitting on a bed in a nondescript room, his bag on a chair nearby, and when he gets the call, he takes the bag and exits without hesitation.
This shot of Paz, the man in the room, is indicative of the rest of the film: it happens very quickly; it relies on your knowledge of the previous films to convey meaning (Paz, like Bourne, is a hired killer for the CIA but unlike Bourne he still does whatever he’s told without hesitation); and it seems so straightforward as to lack any deeper subtext.
If there is subtext to The Bourne Ultimatum, it stems from precisely that scene and others in the film like them. The Bourne Ultimatum is, from what I could tell, a fetishized love letter to the assassin, to lonely men in empty rooms and the things of which they’re capable. Bourne himself is one of these men; a trained killer who, after losing his memory, finds himself locked in near-constant battle with the CIA as he struggles to find out who he is (first film), take revenge on what was done to him (second film), and find out how he was created (third film). As Bourne becomes more and more unstoppable, the films cannot help but create a greater appreciation for this man without a history, without a place, who lives forever on the run and five steps ahead of anyone else. His only real threats are other men like him–similarly streamlined men with backpacks and furtive steps, capable of entering anywhere, killing anyone with anything. The Bourne films take the figure of Lee Harvey Oswald–the nobody with the gun believed to have done the work of mysterious men–and turns him into a superhero, and I find that both alarming and oddly comforting.
The alarm, I would think, is easily understood: no one would like to see a upswing in the number of blank-faced young men breaking into apartments and killing people with magazines, textbooks and Hummel figurines. But I hope the comfort is too: cities are filled with lonely men in empty rooms the world over, and the Bourne movies are made for them, flatter and woo those lonely men with no lives as if they were prettiest girls on their blocks. The Bourne Ultimatum, in fact, makes the connection between lonely men and cities manifest, as the camera frequently zooms in and out on the facades of one international city after another–London, Madrid, New York–similar to the way it does on Bourne’s guarded face. And, of course, no matter what city, Bourne and his kin can dash about in ultimate confidence, able to maneuver through it with a speed and ease native policemen cannot. Even more than they celebrate the magic and mystique that surrounds the assassin, the Bourne films romanticize the global, post-industrial urban worker: rootless and without community, appearing in any city to do any job asked of them, these men appear to own nothing but their own specialized skills and yet can do anything better than anyone else. In The Bourne Ultimatum, the non-Bournes are men of color, played by Edgar Ramirez and Joey Ansah, and they are presented as Bourne’s equals in every way. When battling Bourne to the death, their fights aren’t charged with the fear of the Other, but by a strangely liberating feeling of equality: in the world of this film, all of God’s childrens got the skills to kill with a bathmat, a candlestick and a Peugeot.
Now, like its predecessors, The Bourne Ultimatum is so well-made and so satisfying I’d hesitate to link the movie’s success to this subtext. Director Paul Greenglass and screenwriters Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi create a movie shorn of any unnecessary detail, and allow viciously unrelenting momentum to take the place of character, theme or meaning. At times, the viewer is one split-second behind what’s happening onscreen and then, without warning, there’ll be a pause and the viewer will have a second to appreciate what’s coming next, and then things accelerate again. It’s completely exhilarating, although also a little depressing if you think about it a little bit afterward: part of why you’re able to follow what’s happening is that so little of it is new. The films play like classical variations on each other and, as well, the man on the run genre. But they’re made with so much intelligence and clarity of vision you leave the films feeling both smarter and more clear-eyed after seeing them.
It’d be lovely if this intelligence and clarity was joined to something morally or spiritually edifying, which is probably where my temptation to bemoan/praise/pick at the film’s possible subtexts comes in. Still, the Bourne trilogy (almost certain to be a quadrilogy, considering Bourne‘s monstrous opening weekend) has proven to be a surprisingly sharp series of action films, the kind that Hollywood burns to make more of but by and large lacks the skills to do so. If you haven’t already, check them out.