To all good things, an end. And so too must the epic journey of Jason Bourne, as he searches to reconstruct his memory and understand why and how he came to be the CIA’s deadliest assassin. What began as a simple trope to put a highly skilled black-bag operator on the run, providing no small amount of thrills and action along the way, became something more: a deep dive into a world of secrets where the only thing worse than not knowing the truth is to live with it. Jason Bourne’s story doesn’t end with the Bourne Ultimatum, but the Bourne Ultimatum does provide a terrific ending to this chapter of Bourne himself, the world that made him, and those who must pay for putting it all in motion.
After his mission of redemption in Russia, Bourne begins to tie up his own loose ends so he can fade into the shadows once more. He informs his dead girlfriend Marie’s family of her fate, but in so doing, discovers that word is getting out about the Treadstone program that created him, as well as Operation Blackbriar, Treadstone’s successor program. Sensing an opportunity to tear down the apparatus that has hounded him, but also feeling obligated to aid those who don’t know what they’re getting into, Bourne heads off to protect those trying to uncover some of the CIA’s dirtiest laundry. And as he does, he begins to learn just who he can count on as an ally, who is holding the keys to his past, and who needs to be held accountable for Treadstone’s bloody legacy. For Bourne, the only way to go is into the heart of enemy territory, where escape and evasion might no longer serve him as well as they once did. For his mission is no longer survival or revenge, but justice. And that might be the one thing a killer like him was never built to deliver.
In an unusual bit of narrative overlap, the story picks up in the third act of the previous movie, (the Bourne Supremacy) and fills us in on everything that happened between the end of that act, and Supremacy’s epilogue, before then proceeding into new territory. It’s a curious case of not-quite-retconning, but it works especially well because it subverts what we see at the end of Supremacy: Bourne so triumphant as to have the CIA itself on the back foot. That might be a satisfying way to end a movie, but it’s hardly a decent setup for further plot development. So, by the time Supremacy’s ending plays out a second time in Ultimatum, its context has completely changed from victory to tension, and yet we never feel a sense of having been bamboozled. That is some skillful execution. Bravo.
The temporal trickery in the plot also brings to mind the passage of time for Bourne himself, whose years of nonstop pursuit and battle have taken their toll on our hero down in more ways than one. In the shadow of the Blackbriar assassins chasing him, Bourne must contend with the notion that as good as he is, he is no longer state of the art. And it doesn’t matter who you are: coming face-to-face with the specter of obsolescence never goes down easily. He still has plenty of gas in the tank, but the more he discovers where he came from, the more he realizes that he’s got limitations, and that to die after all of this would be a kind of tragedy. It’s easy to be brave when your training does all the decision-making, or when your rage puts danger from your mind. But when you know why you want to stay alive, that’s when a different kind of courage is needed. It is one Bourne has never had to summon before. But if this quest of his has done nothing else, it has driven Jason Bourne to find new types of bravery that didn’t come from his Treadstone conditioning. It came from the guy who joined Treadstone to become something else.
Perhaps Ultimatum’s most fulfilling sequence occurs once Bourne has again reunited with CIA technician Nicky Parsons, as well as joined forces with investigative journalist Simon Ross and is realizing that he has an ally in CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy. All of them have something he needs, but more than that, all of them need his protection as well, and for the first time, Bourne finds himself serving something outside of himself of his own volition. There comes a point where Nicky has been targeted by a Blackbriar assassin, and for a few riveting minutes, Bourne races to get to Nicky before the assassin does. When the fight happens, we know we’ll be in for another shaky cam extravaganza. But that’s not the stakes. For a few heart-stopping moments, Nicky’s survival is very much in doubt. It’s not easy to get that rise out of the audience after two and a half movies of Jason Bourne doing his thing, but here we are, with fingers firmly dug into armrests over it.
That sequence works so well because we finally get to see what its like for Bourne to use his skills to protect others. Bourne was built to exert other people’s influence on the world, not his own, and this is an area where he’s kind of outmatched, really. But then again, aren’t we all? Suddenly, as we see Bourne trying to impose his will on a world too big to control, we see a bit of him in us, and a bit of us in him. As Bourne spends his final moments talking down a Blackbriar assassin, we see in his weariness a moment of truth not just for this movie, but for the entire trilogy it concludes. “Look at us,” he says. “Look at what they made you give.” Too much. And yet, never enough. You don’t have to be a spy to feel that kind of pain.