Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) can never stop moving. A human rogue weapon left for dead and without a memory in 2002’s The Bourne Identity, he’s driven by the twin motivations of keeping one step ahead of the government operatives who created him and learning the secret of his own past. He’s both irresistible force and immovable object; you can almost feel the world around him shuddering as he exerts his will.
You might feel that sensation even if Paul Greengrass weren’t directing Bourne’s adventures, but it’s certainly compounded by the director’s hand. When he helmed The Bourne Supremacy in 2004, Greengrass brought the hallmarks of his documentary background to the story: handheld cameras and a nerve-wracking, jittery immediacy miles removed from the slick espionage thrillers of Cold Wars past. And while critics went nuts when Greengrass employed that style for the you-are-there gut punch of last year’s United 93, the notion of a genre franchise imbued with the same breathless urgency might seem a bit, well, shaky.
With The Bourne Ultimatum, however, Greengrass manages to improve on a franchise that just keeps getting better. The action picks up in medias res at the end of Supremacy, with Bourne still on a quest for his history. When a British reporter (Paddy Considine) tracks down a source willing to spill the beans on the history of the Treadstone project that created him, Bourne sees an opportunity to get even closer to the truth. But forces within the American intelligence community—including CIA Deputy Director Vosen (David Strathairn)—will do anything and kill anyone to keep that truth hidden.
Joan Allen and Julia Stiles—as Pam Landy and Nicky Parsons, CIA operatives sympathetic to Bourne—return from previous Bourne films, but this is really about Damon. The role demands someone whose intensity commands the screen even when he’s not saying a word, and Damon has always played Bourne as though his life really did depend on it. The badass with a grudge may be an action-movie staple, but few have played it with this kind of resigned, single-minded determination.
In many ways, though, the psychology of the central character matters less in this Bourne film than it has in any of the others. While we do see the flickers of memory that haunt Bourne, Ultimatum feels even more like a gritty Bond film with its emphasis on action set pieces and its globetrotting locations. What Greengrass adds to the proceedings is an improbable combination of pure adrenaline and what-the-hell’s-gonna-happen-next consequence. The two central chases are as riveting as anything you’ll see on a screen this year. In the first, Bourne and the reporter try to make their way through London’s Waterloo Station while CIA agents converge on them. In the other, on the streets and rooftops of Tangier, Morocco, Nicky tries to evade an assassin, who’s trying to evade Bourne, who’s trying to evade the police. See if you have to remind yourself to breathe at the end of either scene.
If you read reviews, you’re bound to come across comments about Greengrass’ quivery hand-held shots inspiring a desire for Dramamine, or the helter-skelter rhythms of his action editing. And yes, the fights and chases occasionally take on a chaotic quality that’s far from crystal clear. Yet somehow it still works, because the director has created such a pervasive atmosphere of restlessness and tension that you find yourself in Bourne’s skin.
If there is fault to be found here, it’s in the inevitable resolution of the Bourne mythology. It’s here that Greengrass and his screenwriters—including returning adapter Tony Gilroy—chew over the narrative’s morality most obviously, and indulge Albert Finney in yet another of his late-career performances, in which it seems he’s getting paid by how long he can stretch each syllable. The Bourne Ultimatum proves much more riveting when it’s keeping up a propulsive pace, and allowing Greengrass to guide with a hand that’s always steady—even when his camera isn’t.