live free or die

When last we met Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne, he was fucking pissed. But you wouldn’t know it based on Matt Damon’s stoic facial expressions as he mercilessly slew assassins by means of guns, knives and a ballpoint pen. The government had trained him to kill mindlessly, then erased his memory. They even capped his hottie girlfriend. He started digging for his past in a globe-trotting, car-crashing quest to figure out who he is, and discovered that the conspiracy to turn assassins into pit bulls went pretty far up the political ladder. Along the way, he beat a guy’s ass with a magazine, blew a bunch of shit up and offered some of the best fight sequences and car chases in recent cinematic memory.

Both The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy were white-knuckle actioners for adults, where the plot served more of a purpose than to transport stone-faced Damon from fight to fight. And while the conspiracy theory plots were pretty elaborate, they weren’t nearly as complex as they pretended to be. Both films are smart action flicks that skimp neither on the pyrotechnics nor the brains. It was as if somebody crossed Die Hard with Bond, and added a little shot of The Manchurian Candidate to keep it smart.

The presumed final chapter in Bourne’s adventures, The Bourne Ultimatum stands like a giant over the rest of the summer’s “threequels.” Picking up right where Supremacy left off, Bourne is hell-bent on tracking down the government agents who turned him into a monster, which means more globe trotting, more fast-walking, more chases and some truly gnarly fight sequences. But director Paul Greengrass, returning to the franchise after the awesome Supremacy and gut-wrenching United 93, takes his time getting to the big bangs. Employing his trademark shaky-camera-equals-realism techniques, Greengrass has established himself as a master of tension, and one of the best directors in the thriller genre. He can take even a simple phone conversation and turn it into a nail biter, and throughout Ultimatum his style keeps it flowing and feeling real, if not a bit stomach churning.

As Bourne, Damon’s all tension and no humor, which is the film’s only real detriment. The dude doesn’t crack a smile. That’s understandable. Bourne’s been through some serious shit, not the least of which is an Abu Ghraibish reprogramming and a habit of becoming a human punching bag. Though humorless, it’s still a great kick to see Damon careening through the streets of Morocco on a dirt bike, crashing through New York in a cop car and dispatching a foe with a book. And when he plays mind-games with his CIA enemies—among them David Strathairn, Albert Finney and Joan Allen as an ambiguous ally—it’s a joy to behold. The film doesn’t hit you with non-stop, blitzkrieg action. It reels you in then pulls you back in anticipation.

It’s that sort of action—makeshift weapons, killer hand-to-hand combat and highway insanity—that sets Ultimatum and its predecessors apart from usual summer fare. Where Live Free or Die Hard resorted to a battle between Bruce Willis and a Harrier jet, Ultimatum builds tension through paranoia and gritty, CGI-free action. For all its faults—including a bit of a letdown with the final revelation—Ultimatum is a summer action flick done right. It’s a film just as cold, calculated and exhilarating as its hero, and a helluva way to end blockbuster season.
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