Author's note, July 2016: The tone is all wrong and I regret the limited chronological focus, but as I prepared to write a new version of this review, I found that I really had nothing to change besides the mode of expression. While it represents the style and thought process of a much younger, and frankly much dopier writer than I like to think I've become, I still stand by the substance of this review.

If my math is right, at the end of July there had been twelve films released in the summer of 2007 that were sequels, and four of those were the third film in a series.

And now, lucky number 13, The Bourne Ultimatum: the first film in that whole morass that's not just good, but the best entry in its franchise.* Indeed, it's one of the best summer films released in the last two years. If I may be so bold.

So let's quickly recap: Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has been chased up, down and sideways through Europe, first in a film that was a blissfully low-tech, high-intelligence spy thriller, then in a film that was even lower-tech, higher-intelligence and featured one of the great car chases in cinema history.

This trilogy-capper, rather predictably, is almost techless (on the protagonist's side, at least), and too, it is extremely brainy, for a summer film, or at least incredibly subtle, and who really wants to split that difference? For it is an endlessly thrilling action caper that is in fact a referendum on the authoritarian tendency in American government, a fact that is weaved into every moment of conflict while being so unnoticeable that the effect is rather like having Paul Greengrass come over at the end of the movie and whisper, "You noticed it was about fascism?" and you're all "Definitely. Wait, what?"

Mostly, though, it is not about politics. It is about chase. It is a film with essentially no plot (Act one: Bourne is running from the CIA and trying to find clues to his lost identity. Act two: that some more. Act three: yep), instead a series of what can't, in good faith, be called "setpieces." They're more like "situations" that Jason Bourne has to wriggle out of by any means necessary, usually involving action or action-like heroism.

Really, it's like mainlining adrenaline for two hours: the film has only two modes, quick-moving or stressed-out pauses, and for just about every second of its running time (maybe not the first three minutes or thereabouts) it is completely relentless. Once the flow of action sequences begins, it never flags, not for one moment, until the story resolves itself, and then maybe even a little bit after that. The first two films talked about Bourne's life of constant running, always looking over his shoulder; this film doesn't have to talk (it hardly has time to talk), it just runs the characters and the audience ragged.

So many ways to credit this! There's Tony Gilroy's clockwork-perfect script (his third for the series; the practice has done him well), which wastes not a single moment on things we already know, things we don't need to know, instead giving us scene upon scene of happenings. Or the editing, which is fast, fast enough to make the clichéd phrase "MTV-style" seem useless. Mostly, it's Greengrass and his trusty ol' shaky cam, though. That handheld, let's-get-the-audience-sick camera that he got in trouble for in The Bourne Supremacy; personally, I loved it there, but not everybody would agree, and in the run-up to the new film, I recall a lot of fan chatter: "please no shaky cam!"

Well, he's responded to those entreaties by turning the shaky up a notch, if anything (full disclosure: I've only seen Supremacy on television, where the shaking wouldn't register so directly). It works magnificently - it is the single most effective tool in Greengrass's box for getting the audience completely engaged. Because, fact is, the shaky cam really is kind of distracting and disorienting, but that's what makes it work so damn well. The Bourne series has always been about disorientation, and putting that on the audience merely means that we can't passively await the movie to happen at us, we are players in the film's tone, subjected ourselves to a much less physical version of Bourne's constant mental fatigue.

There's just one shot I want to share, not the best in the film, mind you, but one that leaps out at me when I think back over it: at one point fairly early, Bourne is running after an assassin out to kill Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who has finally flipped away from the CIA after two movies. When he left her, she was sitting at a café table; once their immediate danger is obvious, he runs back to that café to find her. In a shot that is somewhere between POV and over-the-shoulder, Bourne runs past Nicky's table, glancing down to see her phone on the ground, and he keeps running. The shot dips down for a fraction of a second, and for not one instant is anything in frame focused properly. It is, basically, what we see when we're running and trying to take in information quickly, but it's not How Things Are Done in movies to show something that is important and that we're supposed to recognise, and then to not film it in focus. It's upsetting, almost, and it's what I love about Greengrass's approach to this material, here and in the last film (but much more effectively here): he keeps us unsettled and on edge. There are precious few moments in the history of the art form where the mere fact of an unfocused shot can juice up the viewer's adrenaline, and that is why Greengrass and The Bourne Ultimatum matter.

I have maybe written myself into an academic hole where these next words will seem disingenuous, but: it's so damn much fun to watch! Admittedly, there's no single moment with same sense of "man, do I love movies" elan as that car chase from the second film (there is a car chase, but it's shorter and much more violent), but there actually doesn't need to be: the whole thing, start to finish, has that feeling, you just don't really get a chance to think about it until it's over. And of course, the sheer delight that transcends criticism of watching actors doing what they do, extraordinarily well. Obviously, three films in, we don't need any more words praising Damon's work in the title role, and Joan Allen isn't much of a surprise after her complete rockitude in the last film. But series newcomer David Strathairn as the bloodless CIA man chasing Bourne is icy perfection itself. And Paddy Considine's small role as an investigative reporter is honey for the teeny-tiny subset of movie buffs among whom I number, that get all excited every time we get the chance to see Paddy Considine in anything.

Why belabor the obvious, though? This is a damn-near perfect action blockbuster. For two hours, it is exhilarating, and when it is over, you just want to get right back in line to ride it again. There's nothing else to say: Jason Bourne has saved summer.

Reviews in this series
The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2002)
The Bourne Supremacy (Greengrass, 2004)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Greengrass, 2007)
The Bourne Legacy (Gilroy, 2012)
Jason Bourne (Greengrass, 2016)