I've often wondered what a movie of nonstop ass-beatings and car chases would look like.
Could it possibly be as great as I imagine? Well, probably not, unless there was a scene where the hero fights a gorilla in the caboose of a train as they speed toward a downed bridge in the Alps, but say a movie was pretty much all action. Would it be terrific? Or would it start to drag after a while until you somehow find yourself thinking "Man, I wish they'd sit down, catch their breath, and just talk about their feelings for a moment"?
"The Bourne Ultimatum" kicks off with Matt Damon dismantling a pair of Russian cops and wrapping up a loose end from the last movie, but within minutes it's deep in the ongoing CIA coverup of the program that turned Damon into such an effective killer.
When a journalist uses the program's code name over the phone, government wiretapping snaps it up and the CIA sends a kidnapping squad to get the guy off the street before he can break the story. He's been writing other pieces about Damon, though, who's dropped by to ask the journalist some questions that might help jog his own slowly returning memory.
Damon and the CIA find him at the same time. As you might guess, violence ensues. Damon delivers the critical beatdown to so many agents, in fact, program head David Strathairn orders in the assassins to take him and the journalist down.
But, as the next million scenes of car chases, fights, and fights with cars proves, Damon doesn't die easy--even when the CIA's hunting him down with all it's got.
"The Bourne Ultimatum" moves as fast as a bullet shot from a gun shot from the barrel of another gun. About halfway through, I realized just how much chasing and fighting there was and wondered, briefly, whether it was tedious. Then Damon gets in a fistfight of such awesome proportions I'm pretty sure I died of an adrenaline overdose, because only in heaven could two guys punching each other be that scary and thrilling.
The secret is director Paul Greengrass. Though he shoots his fight scenes like he himself is being beaten to death as he's filming, he captures just enough of who's bludgeoning who with what for the audience to keep up with the action without having a single instant to process any of it.
A lot of other directors try stuff like that and end up with jarring, flash-cutting headaches for action scenes. Greengrass' hand-held shots create a feeling so animal and predatory you'll somehow fear for your life right there in the theater.
It's that immediacy, along with the creative use of Damon's surroundings as a battleground, that makes "The Bourne Ultimatum" so insanely exciting despite being pretty much one big chase. Sure, in "Live Free or Die Hard," it was pretty cool when Bruce Willis took out that helicopter with that car, and then fought a jet with another car, but that's never going to happen in real life between now and when the sun burns out.
However far Strathairn escalates his efforts to neutralize Damon, and however many cars, bikes, and fists Damon wears out on his way to figuring out who he is, it never feels fake. Some guy really could kick this much ass. You wouldn't want to be anywhere near enough to see him do it, because the mere shockwave of his karate chops would probably break half your bones, but he never breaks the laws of physics or credulity.
That realism just makes the CIA of the movie--an all-knowing, all-monitoring agency that frequently operates without oversight or respect for law--all the more frightening. But Greengrass knows not to let the paranoia get in the way of "The Bourne Ultimatum's" thrills, and when it comes to action, there's nobody better.