Summer Movie Showdown: "The Bourne Ultimatum" Review

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Matt Damon reprises his role as former CIA assassin Jason Bourne in the third film of the espionage thriller series, which is based loosely on Robert Ludlum's novel of the same name. This time around, Bourne dodges a ruthless CIA official and his agents from a new assassination program while searching for the origins of his life as a trained killer.
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Summer Movie Showdown: "The Bourne Ultimatum" Review

Rating: PG-13
Length: 115 minutes
Release Date: August 3, 2007
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Genre: Action/Crime/Thriller
Cast: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, and Édgar Ramírez

Sequels are never easy. While a good movie will sometimes carry with it sufficient momentum to justify a second film-see "The Godfather" for a classic example of this-making a sequel will always involve a particle of risk. For one thing, the film has to appeal to more than just the original fan base; otherwise, the franchise runs the risk of ever-declining interest as fans fall away from going to the theater to see it and new fans aren't picked up. Doing this, however, calls for each film in the series to dedicate a certain amount of screen time to exposition that really should have been out of the way by the end of Act I of the first movie. It's a delicate high-wire act; too much exposition, and precious minutes are wasted on an audience that can be trusted to have arrived at the theater already knowing the broad outline of the central story; too little, and the members who haven't invested in a DVD of the previous movie will find themselves confused and unhappy.

Another problem for sequels is what social scientists used to refer to as the "revolution of rising expectations." That is to say, if the first movie was any good-a la "Star Wars"-then the sequel is expected to be even better-"Empire Strikes Back"-with more dramatic drama and more active action. The characters must be made to develop in a way that's felt to be natural to them despite perhaps having their lines scripted by an altogether different team of writers. It is an unwritten rule of series that each film in the sequence must escalate every element in an effort to keep the audience fully engaged.

So far, this has just been about second movies in a series. All of these problems are present to an even greater extent when the undertaking at hand is the third movie, usually known as the one where the series jumps the shark entirely and goes completely nuts-for a grisly example of this, feel free to rent "Jaws III." For added authenticity, try to get a copy on Betamax-potentially poisoning the brand for good, or at least until the gritty reboot. Even such noble names as "The Godfather" and "Nightmare on Elm Street," to say nothing of "Rocky" and "Rambo," fell to the third movie curse. One notable exception would be "Return of the Jedi," which neatly wraps up the series-or so everyone thought-and brings the story around to something like a natural conclusion.

Another notable exception to the rule has been "The Bourne Ultimatum," starring Matt Damon as the titular character. The entire "Bourne" series-no longer just a trilogy, as a fourth film was released in 2012-has been an elaborate exercise in successful defiance of Hollywood convention. Not only has the hero of the story, Jason Bourne, always comported himself like a cross between Jiminy Cricket and The Punisher, but the films have followed a highly elliptical arc through characters and settings to keep the series fresh and the suspense intact. This is even more impressive an accomplishment in light of the fact that "The Bourne Ultimatum" doesn't even have the luxury that was enjoyed by "Return of the Jedi," in being the last film and, therefore, at liberty to wrap things up before the plot gets too silly. Rather, "The Bourne Ultimatum" only carries the audience some 115 minutes further along the road.

When discussing a major motion picture, it is customary to discuss such arcana as the quality of the script, the general level of the production values, and so on. In this case, such trifles may be dispensed with, as every element of the "Bourne" films to date has been exactly right. Lighting that sets the mood, acting that delivers the intended effects with the strong direction of Paul Greengrass, and an especially talented-indeed, award-winning-editing department have been brought together to capture lightning in a bottle four times and counting.

While the plot itself is necessarily limited by virtue of being part three-of-four, "The Bourne Ultimatum" manages to advance the overall story by several important notches. Very little is what a nitpicker would call new, as introducing a host of new elements to the series at this point would be needlessly confusing. However, like a good libretto, the themes of "Bourne" repeat and continue over each other in surprising new ways. Again, there's the impossibly well-planned and organized assassination plot. Still, there's the seemingly never-ending quest to unlock the key to Bourne's memory and the wild action sequences across multiple exotic settings to keep the audience glued to their seats.

While much is to be hoped for in the subsequent installments of the franchise, quite a lot has already been accomplished. "The Bourne Ultimatum" isn't just the third movie in an average series. It is a welcome addition to the official "Bourne" canon.

Rating: 4 out of 5