The Bourne Ultimatum
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns, George Nolfi
Starring Matt Damon, David Strathairn, Julia Stiles, Albert Finney
BY LIAM LACEYJason Bourne is back in the third and purportedly last of the exemplary action thrillers in a trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum. Bourne, as you may or may not recall, is found floating in the Mediterranean one day. He has no memory of who he is, but soon discovers he's a frighteningly efficient killing machine.
All three movies have followed the traumatized Bourne's attempts to get to the bottom of a brainwashing experiment, of which he is the unhappy product. The Bourne Ultimatum is both the most bewildering of the three movies and also the most brutally compelling.
The movie is directed by Paul Greengrass ( United 93, The Bourne Supremacy) using jittery, handheld cameras and claustrophobic, convulsive editing with an unerring sense of rhythm that keeps the anxiety level in the red zone. This is a chase film, pushed to the fragmented limits of abstraction, that rattles and jolts and explodes like an intricately designed drum solo.
Throughout the panic dream of a plot, the titular amnesiac hero experiences repeated bouts of physical mayhem, lives in dreadful paranoia and travels with such hurtling speed he seems to dematerialize and re-form in new places. Bourne, the bullet-headed protagonist with the blank stare, crashes, falls, gets shot at, gets wounded and murders his opponents with wrenching, unhesitating violence.
Shards of narrative fly by between chases and abrupt changes of locations, experienced simultaneously from the perspective of Bourne and his adversaries in the CIA. Behind the omnipresent surveillance cameras, phone taps and would-be assassins is a hierarchy of sour-faced, white-haired men who took Bourne's identity and now want to end his life as well.
CIA black ops chief Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) follows Bourne's movements and has an irrational zeal to see the former agent killed. Vosen is working for an even more vicious boss, Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn), who in turn answers to an older and still more evil figure, the gravel-voiced Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney), who appears intermittently in Bourne's scratchy flashbacks. In a final confrontation, Hirsch's voice is altered and seems to be accompanied by the sounds of some Stygian wind.
Working on the hero's side are women: Julia Stiles as Nicky Parsons, a young, round-faced CIA operative whom Bourne had met before, and Joan Allen as the blond, angular Pamela Landy, an agent who looks at the walls of surveillance images and computer data and feels sympathy with the target.
The script, by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi, is efficiently savvy and - like the vanity-free acting throughout - pared down for maximum thump with the minimum of adornment. Bourne's journey has elements that are obviously mythic, with devouring father-figures, mothers confused as lovers, Bourne's baptismal birth and the hero's desire to be Bourne again. But all these archetypal underpinnings are submerged beneath the blur of relentless action.
The first of these bravura action set-pieces in crowded city centres takes place at London's Waterloo Station, where Bourne attempts to meet a newspaper reporter (Paddy Considine) who has run a story about Bourne, obviously from a well-informed source. Picking up on a word, Blackfriar, from the reporter's cellphone, a CIA hit squad instantly attacks Bourne and the reporter.
This leads to a breathtaking chase through the train station and a shopping mall in which the viewer is simultaneously immersed in the vast surveillance network while participating in Bourne's thwarting of it.
Barely has the tension from the sequence ended when Bourne is off to Madrid, where he meets again with Nicky for another short battle. He then heads on to Tunisia where a CIA hit-man (Joey Ansa), trained under the same mysterious program as Bourne, is waiting for him.
What follows is the film's tour-de-force chase, using the same parkour techniques (obstacle-course running and jumping across rooftops) and vicious hand-to-hand combat that reinvigorated the last Bond movie.
The extended Tunisian sequence is so breathlessly intense that it risks taking the wind out of the film's last act. It's yet another showdown, this time in New York, where Bourne penetrates his enemies' nest. The conclusion is complete enough that any further Bourne adventure would have to be regarded as an act of bad faith with the audience.
Is The Bourne Ultimatum about anything more than the astonishing visceral kicks? Well, yes and no. The idea that American intelligence agencies are corrupt isn't so much an indictment as a thriller cliché. The script makes pointed references to water torture and Vosen's George Bush-like commitment to killing until "we've won," but this is a blockbuster fantasy that disturbs only to reassure.
If the real CIA were anywhere near this efficiently evil, terrorism would long ago have been as passé as spies in tuxedos.