Faster and, if possible, furiouser than its predecessors, the latest episode in the stupendously lucrative Bourne franchise by now owes little more than a courtesy credit and an ample supply of free-floating CIA paranoia to the Robert Ludlum novels on which all three movies are very loosely based. Published in 1990 and the last of the Bourne thrillers to be written by Ludlum himself, The Bourne Ultimatum brought to a head Jason Bourne’s struggle with his arch-nemesis, Carlos the Jackal — the real-life terrorist whose maverick operations will signify little or nothing to the Bourne target audience. The visceral thrills in the latest movie, expertly directed by Paul Greengrass (who also made The Bourne Supremacy), are beamed at a worldwide generation that casually takes for granted both the notion of a globally power-hungry America and ambiguous creatures like Jason Bourne, who knows not whether he’s hero or villain, or both.
Played with his customary intensity by Matt Damon, who’s looking, at last, more like a man than an overgrown gym rat, Jason spends his days wandering the globe, stateless and friendless as ever. The identity crisis that agonized him in Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity has shifted into murkier and potentially more interesting territory. Bourne knows who he is now (CIA straight arrow Pamela Landy, played by Joan Allen, told him at the end of The Bourne Supremacy) and who killed his girlfriend, Marie (Franka Potente), but he remains tormented by the question of how he became an assassin (did he go, or was he pushed?), while his former masters are bothered by the fact that such a malfunctioning, loose-cannon killer poses a clear and present danger to their freshly amped plan for ruling the world. That plan is never made entirely clear — which is more or less the point, given that the primary goal is victory for its own sake. Dubya, are you listening?
In Bourne-speak, Operation Treadstone (which, perhaps because I found the first two Bournes efficient but dull, I keep remembering as Operation Treadmill) has been upgraded to the far more attractive, far more lethal Operation Blackbriar and moved to a London HQ more convenient to frequent flights by train, air, cell phone and e-mail to colorful European locales, with occasional trips home to Langley, Virginia. There lurks Scott Glenn, up to no good and as terse of speech as his flinty London counterpart, Noah Vosen, played by David Strathairn, among whose many skills is the ability to say “Listen up, people, this is a full-priority situation” without cracking up. Actually, everyone is entertainingly terse in this movie, which screenwriters Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi have rescued from Ludlum’s lumpy prose, only to pepper it with dialogue straight out of a boy’s own comic book. Under Vosen’s dour supervision, with Landy as resident patsy should things fall apart, Blackbriar’s game plan can be summed up as a series of excuses for leather-jacketed internationals in woolly caps to chase Jason and be chased in turn around Waterloo Station, Paris, Turin and Madrid, all the while demonstrating the expendability of human life, especially the lives of its own agents. If that’s all you ask of The Bourne Ultimatum, it will be quite enough.
There is minimal distaff distraction — Julia Stiles returns in a becomingly streaked bob to gaze mournfully at Jason and execute plucky leaps between buildings in Morocco. But mostly Greengrass treats us to an escalating collection of exquisitely choreographed car chases, blowups and — Bourne being the do-it-yourself, one-man-against-the-system fellow that he is — hand-to-hand combat and the use of common electric fans as nifty decoys. With every twist of the final pileup on the streets of Manhattan — a sequence of unbelievable technical chutzpah — the man next to me rose in his seat, grunted happily and gently resettled.
In other words, The Bourne Ultimatum is fully critic-proof. The best action movies strain against genre, but there isn’t a single player in The Bourne Ultimatum you could plausibly call a character — not even Jason, flailing around in moral agony as he fastidiously picks and chooses between true baddies and victims of The System. Underneath its thin plotting, the movie seems to be reaching for something new to say about the death of idealism and the self-perpetuating, self-defeating nature of superpower espionage. For a thriller about the changing terrain of global terror, though, The Bourne Ultimatum is strikingly circumspect, even timidly distinguished for what it completely ignores — namely, the war between Islamic jihad and the West, which, despite a busy visit to Tangier (where was the burqa when Julia needed it?), doesn’t merit so much as a look-in. Ludlum was a cold warrior through and through; Greengrass gives great fight, but seems unsure what or for whom it’s being fought. Which makes you wonder whether Jason Bourne, or whoever he is, is really keeping America safe from itself — or just saving it for the next sequel.
THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM | Directed by PAUL GREENGRASS | Written by TONY GILROY, SCOTT Z. BURNS and GEORGE NOLFI, based on the Bourne novels by ROBERT LUDLUM | Produced by FRANK MARSHALL, PATRICK CROWLEY and PAUL L. SANDBERG | Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide