Tuesday, February 12, 2008

'The Bourne Ultimatum'

'Past The Mission'

'Ah, but you can't kill me, Louis' Lestat ('Interview with a Vampire')

The C.I.A. and Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) find themselves expressing a similar sentiment to each other immediately after 'The Bourne Ultimatum' begins. Bourne is of course on the run, still trying to piece his past identity together without having to kill as much. Meanwhile, the C.I.A. pursues its aim to eliminate any trace of the program that created Bourne and once they accidentally sight him through a London surveillance camera, this intensity grows. The moment is a jolt to deputy director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn, at his icy best). Bourne's constant elusiveness shows up the department as ineffectual to take out their own and he wants to put an end to it once and for all. For him, one thing matters only and that's winning, no matter the cost.

If you have followed the previous two films in the series then the plot is pretty much familiar. Bourne runs, kills, pieces a little together only to have to run again. 'Ultimatum' treads this routine early on but director Paul Greengrass takes a suspenseful turn for the better after Bourne is revealed to the C.I.A. and stumbles across Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) in a Tangiers safe-house. There is some brilliantly played out tension in the ensuing phone call which functions solely as a call to arms for both factions to clearly define their chosen sides. By now Pam Landy (Joan Allen) and Parsons have tacitly aligned themselves to Bourne in order to defy C.I.A regulation. Covert operations begin to take a fascinating structural shape that will ultimately cost several traditional regulations. As they divide between themselves the unquestioned loyalty that had kept Bourne a united target to start with, both factions put their poker faces on.

The film successfully executes its divisiveness partially because of its writing. Credit then goes to Tony Gilroy, Scott Burns and George Nolfi for holding nothing back by way of faceless deception: Vosen desperately tries to trap and outwit Bourne with technological sophistry only to be one-upped by a standard telescopic devise. This nicely shows contrast of method. Landy and Parsons help Bourne fully well knowing that their lives will be jeopardized. After Bourne escapes with Parsons from the safe-house and she is turned into a target as well, the angle is thrillingly explored through a long chase sequence with her instincts finally being put to action. The assassin chases her into a dwelling (agents often think alike so it's merely kinetic) but Bourne prevents harm to her with some snappy action. He battles the assassin in full view of Parsons and she watches grimly aware that this is real; she is no longer safely viewing the action from an office. They silently clean up afterwards: words aren't needed. This is the job for which they are trained. Bourne however, amid a flash-back sequence, determines that before the C.I.A can shut both down he will take decisive action first.

That means going back to the place where it all started three years ago: the C.I.A training facility in New York. The two factions roll out to meet him but Vosen miscalculates Landy's sense of duty. She finally realizes that there is a cover-up that can only be contained with Bourne's elimination and strings Vosen along just as he has been stringing her along all the time. Her defection hits the deputy director late: he does eventually decode her plans to meet Bourne but arrives too late to prevent her from faxing unclassified and damning documents that will expose his part of the cover-up. Vosen however is not alone in getting a rude awakening. Bourne finally retraces his steps and his memory on that first day he first volunteered to be a part of the C.I.A. operation. It’s a devastating truth: he is one of a line of experimental super-agents that get eliminated once past their missions. To ensure no dual interest or conflict, the C.I.A. enforces the succession by a type of patricide.

It's uncanny but Greengrass has, for the second film running, managed to succinctly pose inherent and uncomfortable questions about the state of American intelligence and information-gathering mechanism. Though he directed the last 'Bourne' film, this new one more resembles his brilliant post-9/11 docudrama 'United 93' (in my view, the best film of 2006). That film also held a high office and its individuals under subtle scrutiny for a series of events that capitulate out of control.

'Bourne Ultimatum' offers shades of the 'Matrix' trilogy as well. The characters here too also know how and when to take precipitous action. Though the true aim of their action is to effect change, they all know nothing will change because one course of action is wholly dependent on another. Remove that conflict and the other falls away as well. This challenging attachment is what keeps the film's anticipation going as well as unresolved (no doubt keeping the door open for a possible sequel) so Greengrass merely teases then with a flurry of 'Matrix-esque' activity towards the end. Vosen may eventually come up on the wrong end of his gamble like the Architect but he does get his shot at Bourne--literally. Landy may have gotten her hands on the damning documents but, like Morpheus, it sinks her implicitly deeper into a situation which she is not in control of. Parsons receives the news of Bourne getting shot with a Trinity-like unreadable expression but this lifts to a wry smile when it's reported that his body is yet to be found. Bourne of course is the Neo figure. He pirouettes into the air and crashes into the sea, pretty much how the series began. In the last shot we see his seemingly indestructible body thrusting upward as if by instinct. The only question now is--aimed with the issue of his past fully resolved, and without an Oracle figure to guide him, will Bourne swim knowingly to shore or resolutely towards the horizon.

RATING: 9/10