Jason Bourne is tired of being pursued by shadowy hit men: "Somebody started all this ... I'm going to stop it." The bills come due in Paul Greengrass' The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in the current series of films adapted from Robert Ludlum spy-thriller novels.
Bourne (Matt Damon), introduced in 2002's The Bourne Identity, is a highly trained American operative who as a result of his intensive training can't remember who he is or why he does what does. For three years, he's been on the run around the world, stumbling over bodies, dodging bullets and bombs, and occasionally dispatching potential assassins with an enviable efficiency.
Now that a newspaper article has outted Bourne as a component of a secret CIA operation, Bourne jumps into the light: The reporter's source likely holds answers to his murky identity. Naturally, the home office stateside notices, and Bourne is labeled an immediate "threat." The CIA project director (David Strathairn) wastes no time putting an "asset" (spook double-talk for an assassin) on Bourne's tail.
Bourne's psychic burdens, too, are catching up with him. He's tormented by fuzzy flashbacks of past traumas, including an episode that may be his training -- or his torture. ("Will you commit to this program?" a creepy voice intones repeatedly.) Bourne's always been a reluctant killer, and the faces of the dead -- those close to him and those he silenced -- also float to the surface.
It's common theme of spy thrillers, the costs of trading morality for efficiency, and its tendrils run through Ultimatum: After choosing to live in a world of lies, who can you trust? Where is it safe? What have you become? The lost "who" of Jason Bourne is more than just his former identity.
In a summer of tiresome three-quels cynically produced to drag the faithful to the box office, Ultimatum rises above, playing out like the logical conclusion of a three-part story. There's not that much plot; it's primarily a two-hour obstacle course with short breathers for exposition. Yet I found the wrap-up, while no surprise, to be satisfying. It even offered a smidgen of critique on our current national-security anxieties, with riffs on unauthorized wire-tapping, ghosting, the non-rights of enemy combatants and the above-the-law attitude that surrounds our security institutions.
Ultimatum's first hour offers plenty of globe-hopping: Bourne may be a harried spy on the run, but at least his troubles take through the world's great cities: Moscow, London, Paris, Madrid. The second half finds Bourne in the U.S., as he homes in on his origins in New York City.
Greengrass goes full bore on the vérité style that he previously used to great effect in Bloody Sunday, 2004's The Bourne Supremacy and last year's subdued yet nerve-wracking United 93. The camera's always on the move, the edits are rapid-fire, and even office-bound scenes unspool with a palpable visual tension.
Using both his brains and technology, Bourne shows us his best work even as he's meticulously choreographing a meet-up at London's busy Waterloo Station while also evading an assassin and numerous CCTV cameras. But behind Bourne is Greengrass, who's pulling the real strings, and slicing and dicing this bravura nail-biter segment together. It's such jumped-up duck-and-dash sequence that you'll be tempted to look over your own shoulder.
Later, Greengrass highlights some old-school action-film elements -- shoe leather and close quarters -- to lead us on a chaotic foot chase through the warrens of Tangier. It's not the fabled Casbah of Algiers, site of several famous cinematic pursuits that Greengrass likely tips his hat to, but its narrow corridors, blind alleys and terraced rooftops will do.
Greengrass delivers a smartly assembled action flick-- entertaining, thrilling and free of the pitfalls that ruin other, more bombastic films. There's a slate of respectable actors on board -- among them Joan Allen, Paddy Considine, Julia Stiles and Albert Finney -- and none are allowed chew the scenery. The dialogue may be pulp fiction, but it's delivered soberly and not juiced up with silly quips and catchphrases. And best of all, Greengrass doesn't slum by glorifying the killings, or overplaying the mayhem.
And Ultimatum still offers plenty of low-brow fun -- from the Manhattan demo-derby car chase that drew appreciative gasps from the audience to skin-of-the-teeth escapes and Bourne's clever MacGyvering his way out of jams. (In one bare-knuckled battle, he makes a nearly lethal weapon out of a paperback book.)
Of course, Ultimatum has its junky aspects -- the exploits of Bourne and the rapid-response CIA don't hold up to real-life scrutiny, and the film dashes rapidly over plot holes, time jumps and logistics. This is unabashedly a summer popcorn movie; it just happens to be a good one.
- Bourne again: Matt Damon returns as the enigmatic spy.