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The Bourne Ultimatum   B

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Tony Gilroy (based on the novel by Robert Ludlum)
Cast: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Paddy Considine, Edgar Ramirez, Albert Finney, Joan Allen.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Jason Bourne movies, first and foremost, have always served as an admirable substitute for the Jason Bourne books. They replaced the lurid melodrama of Robert Ludlum's ubiquitous airport paperbacks with a little more grit and verité, but otherwise remained largely in the realm of creative comfort food: lean, efficient, and eminently disposable. The Bourne Ultimatum continues the workmanlike tradition of its two predecessors, adopting another of Ludlum's indistinctive names to demarcate its particular version of Matt Damon beating the crap out of people. In many ways, it's no less stylish and no more substantive than Transformers. The only difference is that it assumes the audience is clever enough to keep up with it. In a summer movie environment, we call that a winner.

Certainly, the style serves as more of a selling point than the title character. Amnesiac ex-assassin Jason Bourne is a cipher by design, evincing few personality traits and an expressionless face that renders him more T-800 than John McClane. Damon's movie-star appeal helps earn our sympathies, but beyond that, he's basically just a killing machine. The Bourne Ultimatum compounds his stoicism by sending him through yet another clash against his former CIA handlers, who have never quite grasped that he doesn't want to play with them anymore. They want to hide their dirty laundry at all costs, he needs to uncover it to learn who he once was, blah, blah, blah, here comes a standard-issue game of cat and mouse right on schedule. His chief adversary this time is dirty little spookmaster Noah Vosen (David Strathairn, picking up where Brian Cox and Chris Cooper left off), who spends most of the film in the same little ops room, surrounded by hyper-competent computer jockeys tracking various targets with absurd technological ease. Bourne (Damon) basically exists to confound their dragnet, striding anonymously through exotic-yet-interchangeable locales and pausing to brood photogenically about the horrible things he's done before engaging in more hypercool espionage leading inexorably towards The Unbelievable Secret That Will Change Everything™. In the middle stand Bourne's erstwhile CIA allies (Joan Allen and Julia Stiles), chewing on their lower lips and giving the bad guys summarily ignored warnings of the "Don't shoot at him, he really hates that" variety.

The dynamics differ little from your average straight-to-cable spy thriller, using grand MacGuffins and nifty hardware as flimsy excuses to set the principles smashing against each other like billiard balls. The Bourne series earns its spurs not in its rather banal foundations, but in the carefully orchestrated surface details. For this version, director Paul Greengrass (who also helmed the second Bourne picture as well as last year's incredible United 93) trundles out his handheld camera with taut, steel-shod intensity. Under its gaze, even the most far-fetched detail retains an air of authenticity, whether it be the enveloping crowds of Waterloo station or the dimly lit crisis centers of Washington's movers and shakers. We buy into this world because it feels very close to ours, and because Greengrass and his team have invested themselves in every tiny little corner.

That pays particular dividends whenever someone grows cocky enough to take a shot at Bourne. Though the action has a certain inevitability to it, it also retains a remarkably developed sense of internal logic. Roger Ebert once said that the quickest way to get us interested in a movie is to show a smart character being smart... and while Bourne may be an automaton, he's a very smart automaton. The Bourne Ultimatum does far more than simply take his bad-assery at face value. Instead, it fills the screen with magnificent little tidbits demonstrating exactly what makes him so hard to kill: using a well-meaning English journalist (Paddy Considine) to bird-dog the hit team closing in on them, for example, or arranging for a crucial piece of misdirection with nothing more than a flashlight and a desktop fan. Such elements work beautifully here, drawing us through scene after scene despite the fact that they're basically just reheated leftovers from the previous two films. Such effectiveness stems from care and enthusiasm on the part of the filmmakers: committed to elevating boilerplate material into something genuinely worth our time.

Greengrass sweetens the pot still further in the climax, when the three-part arc comes full circle and the abyss Bourne has been staring into finally starts staring back. Like the rest of the film, it never overplays those assets, delivering them with matter-of-fact simplicity and letting us absorb the implications in our own time. Other movies would have limited their attention to dead girlfriends and nasty people in need of a comeuppance. The Bourne films have never settled for that, and if we don't retain much of them after we've left the theater, at least they give us a reason to prick up our ears while we're there. That's a hell of a trick for a franchise constructed on so much smoke and mirrors. But even empty spectacle can still show a little intelligence, and even Part Threes can give us their best in the name of proper entertainment. For all the vacuous space at its core, The Bourne Ultimatum respects its audience too damn much to let us take its accomplishments for granted.

Review published 08.03.2007.

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