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The Bourne Ultimatum

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[rating:4]
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Matt Damon, Joan Allen, David Straithairn, Julia Stiles

The third installment of the Bourne series starts off en media res—Jason Bourne is on the run, this time in Moscow, and everything you can be expected to remember of the previous film is here: Shaky handheld camera work that deliberately confuses the action, Matt Damon being pursued but MacGyvering his way out of trouble, sudden violence, and amnesia. Bourne still has a lot of holes in his past. He knows he was a programmed CIA assassin, but he doesn’t quite know who he’s killed and why. Most importantly, he doesn’t know who he really is.

From this opening scene we cut to a CIA briefing that should be titled “Jason Bourne Determined to Attack Inside the U.S.” or perhaps “Here There Be Exposition.” It’s smartly done, though, and it not only refreshes the majority of the expected audience, who will have seen the previous installments, but provides enough for a complete newcomer to follow along. The real action is triggered by a British journalist chasing the story of Jason Bourne, and when both the CIA and Bourne himself decide to pay said journalist a visit, we get a big-stakes game of cat and mouse and cat. High tension ensues, and pretty much continues for the whole movie. The film pinballs from Moscow to New York, Turin, London, Madrid, Morocco and Paris in 111 minutes.

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Under the command of returning director Paul Greengrass, who picked up the second movie after Doug Limon ran the debut, the film is relentlessly tense and fast-paced. The complete lack of downtime pays off in a crackling thriller, of course, but the downside is that it can be hard to keep up with, and some character development is sacrificed to the pedal-to-the-metal narrative drive. Diminished character development serves Matt Damon well. He’s playing an emotionally stunted cypher, so already he’s in his comfort zone, but the film’s steadfast refusal to try to get him to emote is like a softball slow pitch to Hank Aaron, and Damon is compelling as a singleminded, inhuman killing machine (but then, he proved that in Dogma). In fact, if the film drags anywhere, it’s in his interaction with Julia Styles, a sort of platonic substitute for a love interest, to the degree that one cryptic comment and maybe some quick moon eyes constitutes an almost-love-interest. Her arrival in the film, as the only person Damon could possibly trust, at exactly the most improbable moment when he’d need her most, really strains credulity in a picture that already has its lone hero kicking the living crap out of entire squadrons of elite CIA agents. But it’s something you shake your head over, like a mosquito has buzzed too close to your ear, and then you get on with the enjoyment.

Also on the supporting-cast front is Joan Allen, returning from Bourne 2 as a CIA chieftain who doesn’t totally suck. Bourne-Joan Allen is Strangely Yummy This time, Allen is posed opposite the understated genius of David Strathairn, who is a) the best character actor in America, 2) the most under-rated, or third, both of the above. Having two such seasoned actors battling it out in a dark but none-too-deep thriller like this is sorta overkill,Bourne-David Strathairn Can Kill You With His Lanyard like hiring Frank Lloyd Wright and I.M. Pei to build a deck in your back yard, but damn, they’re fun to watch, scurrying around the CIA’s secret New York branch office yelling at underlings to get the goddamned satellite feed. While the movie is Damon’s to sail or scupper, he’d have a harder time of it if his highest-profile antagonists weren’t assuredly excellent in roles that almost never devolve into political caricature.

I watched this film with someone not versed—or particularly interested in—Hollywood action thrillers. Despite not being a fan of the genre, she was utterly engaged in the film, breathless during action scenes, laughing at sudden reversals and Bourne’s clever maneuvers. But she also had a hard time following some of the technical business. The rapid-fire CIA surveillance techbabble was sometimes delivered in such oblique and background-noise nibbles that she didn’t piece together what was going on, and Bourne’s knee-jerk inventiveness occasionally exploded too quickly for her to follow. So while the film rises above being a genre piece for genre fans, there’s also an aspect in which it’s unforgiving of those not trained in spy-adventure convention.

The film also drops the ball for all viewers with a couple of plot points that are not adequately explored. Example: A key piece of the film is Damon’s fragmented memories of having been kidnapped into the mind-wiping program that turned him into Jason Bourne, yet his former superior—his creator, literally—tells it (with illustrative flashbacks) that Damon volunteered for it all. While the viewer can probably make his own mind up about whom to believe, a plot point this significant to the film really ought not to have been left to audience guesswork. If my companion and I both missed a definitive revelation on the issue, well, maybe Greengrass was being a little too oblique. It’s definitely an advantage that the film looks sloppy, that while the action and camera work are choreographed with amazing precision, they look as confusing and uncoherent as such action must seem in real life—but occasionally the film takes that a little too far.

That’s no reason to avoid the film, though. If you liked the previous installments, The Bourne Ultimatum will seem like the third act of one continuous blur of action. And even the newbie should be able to enjoy a quick, inventive and often chilling tale of a CIA run wild, pervasive global surveillance and a quest for identity.

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