Paul Greengrass is one of my absolute favorite action movie directors, and The Bourne Ultimatum is easily my top choice in the series. Greengrass got his start in British documentary television and exploded on the feature scene with the inexorably intense Bloody Sunday, which is about as compelling as fact based cinema can get. He then moved to the second film in the Bourne franchise, The Bourne Supremacy, which was an excellent follow up to Doug Liman’s terrific first installment. Then, Greengrass directed one of the most unforgettable pieces of filmmaking I have ever seen, the 9/11 drama United 93. That film, though extremely tough to watch, is an extraordinary piece of storytelling, totally riveting and down-right scary at times. It’s some of the best pure direction that I’ve seen in a film, so it was no surprise to see that he would get Oscar nominated for his powerful achievement. Building on his famous brand of shaky-cam style that he used in his fist few movies, the work he did on United 93 is monumental, and he brought the same level of verisimilitude to The Bourne Ultimatium, which was critically acclaimed and did massive box office. Matt Damon kicked a ton of ass in the lead role yet again, and the many story threads developed in the first two pictures were all tied together in an extremely satisfying way.
But what blew me away the most about The Bourne Ultimatum was how Greengrass ratcheted up the intensity from the very first scene. It’s like being on a rocket ship for two hours; the film never stops to catch its breath, it’s refreshingly spare with dialogue (what little is said is all that needs to be said), each action set-piece existed in service of the story, not in place of it, and the hand-held cinematography by Oliver Wood was downright sensational even if a few shots sort of defy normal cameraman logic. And the incredible car chase through NYC was absolutely stellar, up there with some of the better screen pursuits of all time, and really demonstrating how hard it must be to coordinate a massive action sequence during the day in the Big Apple. Greengrass always brings his audience into the action whenever possible, using fast cuts and hectic camera movements not as a distraction, but rather as a way to make the viewer feel as if you’re in the middle of the action. I understand that many people don’t like this filmmaking aesthetic. And that’s fine. There are tons of classically shot action films I could point you in the direction of. But in terms of modern stylistic brilliance within the overcrowded action genre, Greengrass is at the top of the list, and I’m not surprised that so many other filmmakers have adopted his inherently visceral style.