Until 'The Bourne Identity' hit screens in 2000, the spy genre was in pretty sorry shape on the big screen. The James Bond franchise had long since become a parody of itself with an series of increasingly ridiculous installments, while Tom Cruise's 'Mission: Impossible' series had some cool moments but was still a hit-or-miss affair. It was really 'Identity' that ushered in a new era for the spy thriller -- one that was gritty, realistic and refreshingly free of gadgets and gimmicks.
The rare sequel to actually outgross its predecessor, 2003's 'The Bourne Supremacy' was so well-received that it created an unusual hunger for 'The Bourne Ultimatum,' which enjoyed an even better opening weekend. In terms of world-wide box office receipts, 'Ultimatum' now stands as the most successful of the 'Bourne' trilogy, which is rare cinematic feat indeed. This success is a testament not only to the series' highly-praised action sequences, but also the complexity of its story and the appeal of the Jason Bourne character. Bourne may not exactly be a new generation's James Bond, but he's certainly the closest modern cinema has seen to his heir apparent.
Viewers who are intimately familiar with the first two films in the series will likely get the most out of 'Ultimatum's convoluted narrative, but the film works well enough as a self-contained thrill ride even if you don't remember every single plot detail of the past two entries. As the movie begins, Bourne is inadvertantly drawn out of hiding by British investigative reporter Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), who has been trying to uncover the secrets of Project Treadstone, now upgraded to new operation called Blackbriar. During the meeting with Ross, Bourne's memories are triggered once again, and he renews his quest to solve the riddle of his mysterious background.
Of course, the CIA has been tracking his correspondence with Ross, and Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) is again back on the case. Only this time, she's got higher-ups (David Straithairn and Scott Glenn) breathing down her neck, and further complicating the government's pursuit is wayward operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who will eventually risk her life and career to help Bourne. While racing across four continents, Bourne will not only have to use every trick in the book to elude capture, but must somehow make his way back to the States and into the inner-most sanctums of the CIA itself if he is to finally uncover the secret of his identity.
As directed by Paul Greengrass (who also helmed 'Bourne Supremacy'), 'Ultimatum' may be the most impressive of the 'Bourne' films in terms of elevating cinematic integration of exposition and action into an art form. This is pure information overload, but because the execution of the suspense sequences is so intense, we are held in a constant state of rapt attention. Watching 'Ultimatum,' the audience literally becomes Jason Bourne, and like him, we are constantly on alert for fear of missing a crucial bit of information integral to our survival. Slyly, Greengrass uses camerawork and editing as co-conspirators in this gleefully shameless manipulation, and the film simply never stops for a second to let us catch our breath. 'Ultimatum' truly relies on the intelligence of its audience, demanding that we pay attention -- even if we're left wrung out and exhausted by the end of the ride.
Admittedly, as fast-paced and consistently engaging as 'Ultimatum' is, there is a certain sense of deja vu that permeates many of the scenarios and setpieces. Case in point is the car chase, which is certainly as adrenaline-fueled as those in the previous 'Bourne' films, but doesn't really offering anything we haven't seen before (it certainly isn't central to the main plot). Likewise, our emotional engagement with the Bourne character can't quite stack up to earlier entries. Although Damon is certainly up to the task, the absence of his great love Marie (Franka Potente, seen here only briefly in flashback) often leaves the character only with cold detachment. The film does try to expand upon the relationship between Bourne and Parsons to add some heat, but the dewey-eyed Stiles doesn't have the same fire as Potente, and though I enjoyed her scenes, there is a distinct feeling of efficiency triumphing over emotion throughout much of 'Ultimatum.'
Still, 'Ultimatum' is quite satisfying because unlike so many other series of its type, it doesn't cheat us of the closure to the story and the character arcs set up in the first two films. Bourne does finally decipher all the clues to his past, and his case with the CIA is closed shut. Of course, the filmmakers have still left themselves just enough wiggle room to bring Bourne back for a series of new adventures some day, but I can't say I blame them. Like the end of the 007 flicks always say, "James Bond will return..." -- so why not Jason Bourne? But regardless of whether there ever are any future 'Bourne' films or not, 'Ultimatum' is a perfectly fitting capper on a truly superlative cinematic trilogy.
If you're familiar with the first two installments in the Jason Bourne series, then you probably already know what to expect from the visual look of 'The Bourne Ultimatum.' Grainy, desaturated and with nary a static shot in film's entire 115-minute runtime, the intentionally rough sheen of 'Ultimatum' certainly doesn't help it in terms of delivering the kind of ultra-clean, super-slick look of the best high-def transfers, but as a representation of the source material this HD DVD is aces.
Universal presents 'The Bourne Ultimatum' in 1080p/VC-1 video, framed accurately at 2.40:1 widescreen. The source is grainy almost throughout, but it's otherwise clean with no blemishes, dirt or other defects. Contrast is appropriately on the hot side, but blacks hold firm and there is little severity to the "crush" on the low end of the scale, leaving shadow details surprisingly supple. Colors are almost uniformly desaturated, and most scenes skew towards blue or green, so don't expect rich orange fleshtones. Still, hues are quite stable and never bleed or fuzz-out, so I was generally impressed with the level of depth and detail, considering the source. Universal has also delivered a top-notch encode -- even with the intense level of fast motion throughout 'The Bourne Ultimatum,' the image never breaks up or suffers from compression artifacts.
As good as 'Bourne Ultimatum' looks, it sounds even better. This is a reference-quality Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit), and one that is equally powerful in terms of envelopment and impact.
'Ultimatum' is exciting because it understands the value of contrast -- Bourne's moments of quiet introspection are heightened by the loud bursts of action, and vice versa. Like its title character, the sound mix is constantly on the move -- even when the bullets aren't flying fast and furious, the techno-fueled score is always humming along, so there's never a dull moment. Realism and heft to the entire 360-degree soundfield is exceptional, with great clarity to discrete effects and seamless pans between channels. Subtle ambiance is better than I anticipated, with bleed of the score again excellent and the attention paid to fine sonic details fantastic. Director Paul Greengrass often makes clever use of subtle aural cues to inform us of Jason Bourne's state of mind (a ringing telephone, footsteps outside a door, etc.) and it's all rendered here with creativity and great care.
Lest anything think there is no bombast to 'Ultimatum,' think again. Dynamics are fantastic, from the subwoofer-shaking low bass (there is some serious rumble in nearly every one of the film's many action scenes) to the finely-attenuated higher end of the spectrum. Finally, unlike so many other action films, dialogue is actually important to 'Bourne Ultimatum,' and happily the mix is perfectly balanced. I never suffered any volume level problems (a real pet peeve of mine), so feel confident that if you crank this puppy up, you can safely put down your remote for the rest of the flick. A tremendous five-star audio experience.
'The Bourne Ultimatum' is Universal's biggest hit of 2007, so they've pulled no punches when it comes to producing a full-fledged special edition for the film's video release. Both the HD DVD and the standard-def DVD versions of the film come with a healthy assortment of extras that by themselves would be pretty satisfying, but add to that some great exclusives (see the "HD Extras" section below), and this HD DVD version easily lived up to my expectations.
'The Bourne Ultimatum' easily holds its own against the first two entries in the Jason Bourne franchise -- no small accomplishment, considering 'The Bourne Identity' and 'The Bourne Supremacy' are two of the best spy thrillers since the era of vintage James Bond. This HD DVD is also a winner -- great video, audio and supplements (complete with high-def exclusives) make this a stellar package in every respect. If you are at all a fan of Jason Bourne, this one's a no-brainer.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.