Marveling at the uncanny off-center camera technique of Jaws, Alfred Hitchcock, during a TV interview late in his life, offered the following description of the director he referred to as ”young Spielberg ”: ”He’s the first one of us who doesn’t see the proscenium arch.” Spielberg, in other words, was the first mainstream filmmaker whose visual awareness didn’t derive from the classic spatial dynamics of the theater. Watching The Bourne Ultimatum, with its swervy, headlong, you are there images of a man on the run from forces he senses yet cannot see, I remembered Hitchcock’s words, and I thought: If Spielberg doesn’t see the proscenium arch, then Paul Greengrass barely even sees the stage. He’s that live-wire and intoxicating a wizard of suspense.
In The Bourne Ultimatum, the camera, mostly handheld, follows the characters through train stations, airports, and the bowels of sinister office buildings (the prospect of a CIA headquarters hidden in Manhattan is a lot scarier than the one in Langley), and through the ancient zigzag stone alleys of Madrid and Tangier. At times, it zooms down from the sky, homing in on vehicles like a heat-seeking missile. Yet rarely, if ever, is there a cozy master shot. Each image is torn, aggressively, out of the one before it — the movie doesn’t seem to be creating the action but catching it on the fly — and the result is that hardly a moment goes by that we don’t experience in the moment.
In one bravura sequence, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), the renegade CIA assassin who is being hunted across three continents, tries to meet up with a British journalist (Paddy Considine) who has information that can connect Bourne to his past — that is, to his brainwashed-away identity. Shooting in downtown London, Greengrass nudges this predicament into a densely layered and exciting pursuit that rides along on tiny, jagged explosions of peril and cunning. Bourne, with his programmed existential reflexes, keeps telling the journalist by cell phone where to go, keeping him just out of the view of surveillance cameras; one wrong step and he’ll be an assassin’s target, a victim of Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), the head scoundrel in charge who is monitoring it all in the CIA control room. It’s like a scene out of Coppola’s The Conversation kicked up to nervous high alert. You take it in not with your brain but through your feelers — your technological third eye. The civilians who swirl around in a rush-hour blur look as if they couldn’t possibly be extras. Nothing feels remotely staged, yet there’s a hidden design to the disorder, and it comes from Greengrass’ elevation of voyeurism into a state of near-metaphysical awareness, as we watch the filmmaker watch Bourne watch his connection as he’s watched by cameras that are watched by enemies who are desperate to kill him.
Tense, nervy, and dazzling, The Bourne Ultimatum has other scenes that tingle with ingenuity, like one in which Bourne sets up a fake meeting with Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), the spymaster who’s now on his side, as bait to clear out the CIA office. Or a car chase that makes you feel every crunch and bend, as the vehicles play bumper cars with the concrete. Greengrass, too, stages hand-to-hand combat with a thwacky viciousness that feels less choreographed than anything he did in The Bourne Supremacy. It may be that this director is liberated to create action with such whirling physical freedom because the story, by now, verges on the abstract. This is the movie in which Bourne finally uncovers what happened to him — a mystery that pays off, though with a bit of musty ’80s Cold War didacticism. Damon, with that bruised scowling baby face, turns himself into more of a haunted machine than ever. He makes Bourne such a minimalist hero — a walking rifle slug, all frigid resolve — that his human-Terminator terseness has become a form of wit. What he can’t do is lend Bourne’s journey more than a token of topical urgency. Ditto for Greengrass’ attempt to tone up the smeary brainwash flashbacks with ”relevant” Abu Ghraib hoods.
The Bourne Ultimatum is a spectacular windup toy of a thriller — a contraption made by an artist. It can’t really be said, however, that the movie takes you anyplace new. That’s perhaps too much to ask of a part-three sequel based on a Robert Ludlum novel. Yet Greengrass, who stages even the simplest scene as if he were playing connect-the-dots in 3-D, has the talent to make revelatory genre movies — and, as he proved in United 93, to elevate fear and courage into a heart-in-the-throat catharsis. That’s a gift, I predict, that will one day take him to Spielbergian levels. Here’s hoping that he never starts seeing the stage. A-