The Bourne Ultimatum Review
Note: this section of is more or less a reprint of my 2008 review of the HD DVD release.
"I think I know what Bourne's looking for," says Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) at one point in The Bourne Ultimatum. Frankly, I'm glad someone does, because I spent a considerable portion of the film's duration trying to work out precisely what was going on. The answer, I suspect, is "not a lot", for, beneath its external sheen of hyperkinetic camerawork and rousing chase scenes, this third instalment in the series fails to tread any new ground and, for the most part, seems content to relax into a rerun of the themes and objectives of its predecessors.
The action kicks off in the immediate aftermath of The Bourne Supremacy - slightly before it, actually, following Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) as he staggers, injured, through the streets of Moscow, attempting to evade the local authorities. Following this brief prologue, which again brings to a head the question of his identity, he comes to the attention of Blackbriar, the black-ops CIA division that has replaced the now defunct Treadstone programme which spawned Bourne. Believing him to be a threat to the division's secrecy, its chief, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), orders Bourne's assassination - a most unwise move. A few bodies and several jump cuts later, Bourne is once again jetting around the world, taking in the sights of everywhere from London to Tangiers to New York, on his continued quest to discover who he is and where he came from.
Superficially, the plot is, as before, about Bourne's quest to uncover his identity, but, in reality, this is essentially just an excuse for a series of extremely effective and often shockingly well executed chase sequences. As an actor, Matt Damon is a bit of a blank slate, portraying Bourne as a stone-faced and largely emotionless automaton, resulting in director Paul Greengrass and his screenwriters' attempts to invoke pathos, such as when the character expresses remorse for the people he has killed, seeming insincere and forced. (It seems ironic that, just as Daniel Craig succeeded in making James Bond human again with Casino Royale, the Bourne series came along, taking the notion of the agent as a robotic killing machine to an entirely new level.) In a sense, this doesn't matter unduly, because the plot barrels forward at a sprightly enough pace for you to be sufficiently caught up in the immediacy to not notice that there is no real heart. In The Bourne Identity, by my reckoning the best of the trilogy by a significant margin, this element was provided by the character of Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente), who, as the everywoman flung into the world of cloak and dagger espionage, gave the audience a human connection that Bourne simply does not possess. By killing her off in The Bourne Supremacy, the series lost something that it has never been able to regain, despite attempts in this third outing to fit Julia Stiles' Nicky Parsons, whom Bourne latches on to in an attempt to make up for his failure to save Marie, into a similar role. Newcomer to the franchise David Straithairn, meanwhile, puts in a fine performance as Noah Vosen, but struggles to do much with what is essentially a paper-thin role.
There's something of a sense of irony that the bland enigma that is Bourne provokes pandemonium on such a global scale, but this worldwide urgency turns out to be highly effective, the various urban locales each sufficiently different from each other and interesting in their own right to prevent the action from becoming predictable. There are essentially three key set-pieces, all of which are extremely effective, but the best, by far, is an extended three-way chase through the labyrinthine streets of Tangiers, which eventually makes its way on to the rooftops before culminating in a thrilling bathroom beating. Greengrass and his stunt coordinator do some bravura work here, ratcheting up the tension and executing some impressively physical stunts.
Unfortunately, much of the action and stunt choreography ends up being obscured by Greengrass' choice to shoot the film with what can only be described as the aesthetic of a drunken baboon. The camera is never still, the photography entirely hand-held, and the effect not only verges on nauseating but quickly becomes tired and predictable. There is a time and place for frenetic camerawork, but it most assuredly is not during what should be a quiet, understated conversation between two characters! (I am reminded here of a quote on David Bordwell's web site, attributed to former editor Larry Mirisch: "They used to move their actors; now they move the camera.") This sort of cinematography is frequently praised as highly realistic, put I personally fail to see this point of view. What, precisely, is realistic about your viewpoint jittering about to the extent that it becomes difficult to see what's happening? Far from providing a sense of realism, the effect is distracting and continually serves to remind you that you are watching something artificial. The boom mike even dips into the frame on a couple of occasions! Throughout the film's duration, I found myself yearning for Doug Liman's comparatively understated treatment on The Bourne Identity.
The Bourne Ultimatum is a decent enough action flick, but not, I suspect, the revelation that many have claimed. While it is an improvement on The Bourne Supremacy if for no other reason than its success at upping the ante with its increasingly outrageous action set-pieces, both films remain in the shadow of the vastly superior The Bourne Identity, which proved that you can tell a gritty, tense espionage yarn while at the same time telling a solid and engaging story.
Blu-ray Disc Presentation
The Bourne Ultimatum was the last of the three films to make it to HD DVD, and the differences between that release and the new BD version are the least significant of the bunch. Once again, two different video encodes have been created, but you'd be hard pressed to tell that simply by eyeballing them. The HD DVD version was already one of that format's all-time greatest, who no discernible flaws, and the BD encode simply serves to tighten things up ever so slightly. I honestly doubt that anyone would actually spot these differences in motion, and even when looking at still frames I had to zoom in quite substantially before I began noticing differences. I've included a blow-up below, but it's actually pretty redundant, really. Whichever disc you have, you get a crystal clear, expertly compressed image with not a hint of artificial sharpening or detail reduction in sight. Alas, as with The Bourne Identity, the subtitles and location type for this UK release have been replaced with player generated text, which is often very clunky and distracting.
As for audio, there are no differences worth mentioning. Unlike its stablemates, the US version of The Bourne Ultimatum was graced with a lossless audio track in its HD DVD incarnation, a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 affair, and 24-bit at that (non-US versions were limited to Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1). For the BD release, this has been replaced with a DTS-HD Master Audio affair, but both are lossless and there is absolutely no difference in the mixing. Whichever version you're listening to, it's a thunderous affair: deep, crystal clear and impeccably balanced, this is the sort of mix that people are referring to when they use the word "immersive". It's a cliché, admittedly, but you actually do feel as if you are there, right in the middle of the action. Subtitles are provided in more languages than I care to count, English naturally being one of them. These cover the film itself as well as most of the extras (barring the commentary).
If you already have the American HD DVD and still have a way of playing it, I see no reason to be concerned about replacing it with the BD.
As one would expect, all the extras from the HD DVD release have been replicated here, starting with an audio commentary by director Paul Greengrass, who flies solo for the duration of the track, and does a good job of keeping it going, imparting a mixture of anecdotes about the shooting and observations about the plot and character motivation, with only a handful of lapses into silence. I wouldn't call it essential listening by any stretch of the imagination, but it's pleasing enough to listen to.
12 minutes' worth of deleted scenes follow. The majority of these are actually extensions of scenes that made it into the final film, taking place primarily inside CIA headquarters. Man on the Move: Jason Bourne, meanwhile, is essentially an exploration of the film's five key international locations: Berlin (doubling for Moscow), Paris, London, Madrid and Tangier (New York, the setting of the climax, shows up later in its own featurette). All told, they run for just under 24 minutes in total. The remaining featurettes focus on the Tangiers rooftop chase, the film's combat choreography, the stunt driving, and the chase through New York City, respectively. All but the latter run for under five minutes, and are watchable enough but fairly light and fluffy.
The above extras are all presented in standard definition anamorphic widescreen.
In addition to the My Scenes option which virtually all Universal's BDs include (allowing users to bookmark their favourite scenes for easy reference), there are three main additional features which only appear on the HD DVD and BD versions. The primary piece is the U-Control feature, which runs during the film and is essentially split into three different elements, each of which can be toggled on or off at the viewer's discretion.
The first, and most substantial, is the Picture in Picture mode, which takes the form of behind the scenes footage and interviews with key (and not so key) members of the cast and crew. The on-set footage tends to be the best, while the cast members' attempts to explain their characters and their motivation often resemble clutching at straws. Unfortunately, this content tends to be rather sporadic in nature, with numerous lengthy stretches in which the film simply plays on its own. You can, luckily, select each of the individual segments from the U-Control menu, allowing you to jump to them without having to sit through the entire film and waiting for them to show up.
The second piece is the Blackbriar Files, which essentially consists of a series of text-based overlays, providing biographies on certain characters and details on the routes Bourne takes during his international jaunts, and distance travelled. Fun, but it feels a lot like padding. Finally, and least impressively, we have what really is little more than an extended advertisement for the Volkswagen Touareg featured in the film. This is, as one other reviewer put it, one of the most nauseating abuses of product placement you're ever likely to come across.
We also have an interactive game entitled "Be Bourne Spy Training", which, oddly enough, reminds me a lot of the child-oriented games that Disney insists on cramming on to its DVDs. Essentially, you are invited to watch 20 different clips from the film and answer a question on each of them, to determine the effectiveness of your powers of observation. You can also upload your score to compare with other users online, as well as indulge in the same online chat and commentary chicanery as with the other two films.
The Bourne Ultimatum was a solid performer on HD DVD, and is just as solid on BD. With the differences between the two releases being so negligible as to barely be worth mentioning, this is hardly an essential upgrade, but those who don't already own the film in high definition are well advised to dive straight in and experience one of the best-looking and -sounding discs out there. Highly recommended.
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