The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Starring: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Paddy Considine, Édgar Ramírez, Albert Finney
Directed By: Paul Greengrass
Why it made the list: If the past decade in film taught us anything, it’s that second sequels are more likely to suck than not. Spider-Man 3, The Matrix Revolutions, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Shrek 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith… all anticipated third entries in popular series released this decade, all range from bad to horrific. So maybe the fact that The Bourne Ultimatum succeeded where all else failed is reason enough for it to be my favourite of the series (all of which made this list).
Not only have I included all three Bourne films in this list, but you may have noticed the past bunch of entries have been a little blockbuster heavy. Depending on your tastes, this may brand me as a populist unsophisticate. Most of the best films of the decade lists I read didn’t include as many popular movies I’ve included thus far, particularly not from the action/sci-fi genres I’ve touched on. Watch enough movies, and it becomes easy to fill a list of 25 with nothing but arty dramas, which is how a lot of the lists I’ve seen turn out. But ask those same critics to name the best films of the 80s, and you’ll see movies like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and maybe even Die Hard high on everyone’s list.
As the above list of failures shows, it can be just as difficult, perhaps even more so, to make quality entertainment as it is to make great art. In my mind, they should both be celebrated, particularly since the presence of quality in blockbuster films has little to do with their ability to make money (and thus its often the area studios neglect). In a decade where it felt like the divide between art and commerce kept growing, The Bourne Ultimatum proved that the two need not be mutually exclusive, even when there’s a guaranteed audience coming from the response to the earlier entries of a franchise.
Spoiler Specifics: I already established in my posts on The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy that the structure of the Bourne franchise isn’t that complicated. Doug Liman set the template in the first film, while Paul Greengrass added another layer of intensity with the second. Greengrass doesn’t add anything new with his second film in the series; he just perfects it. The exotic locales, creative spycraft, constant pursuit, and foot pursuit/one-on-one agent fight/car chase structure is still here, they’re just done better than they had been in the past. Well, maybe the bumper car chase in the streets of New York isn’t quite as good as the Paris and Moscow ones that came before it, but it’s still pretty cool. But the Waterloo Station sequence? The rooftop chase in Tangier? Those are two bravura set pieces that elevate The Bourne Ultimatum to the status of one of the best action films of all-time.
Significant scene: The streets to rooftops chase sequence through Tangier between Bourne, Desh, and Nicky is thrilling enough, making excellent use of the beautiful and unique locale, but the highlight is the fight between Bourne and Desh that ends it. Greengrass’ handheld direction emphasizes the claustrophobia of the fight, giving the audience very little separation between the combatants and their environment. He puts us deeper in the moment by completely dropping the score and letting his foley artists go to work, making us feel every sickening blow of the brutal fight.
It’s as intense a fight scene as you’ll ever see; a flurry of action with the two experienced agents doing the Bourne thing of using every element of their environment as a weapon. Desh grabs a candlestick; Bourne counters with a book. What I like best about the fight is that you really get the sense that these are two highly-trained men fighting for their lives. Too often, fight scenes are choreographed to show off so many moves that they seem more like ballets or demonstrations than brutal fights to the death. These fighters certainly have moves (Joey Ansah, who plays Desh, gets to show off a bit of capoeira), but neither is trying to show off. Instead, they’re using the split-seconds they have to put the other man down before he does the same. Even Julia Stiles gets in on the action for a moment, showing the urgency of the fight. The first time I watched the movie, I’m not sure I blinked or breathed during the entire scene. I’ve watched it several times since, and it still strikes me dumbfounded. Probably my favourite fight scene of the decade.
25. Up (2009)
24. The Hurt Locker (2009)
23. Lost in Translation (2003)
22. The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
21. The Bourne Identity (2002)
20. Serenity (2005)
19. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)