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Bourne Ultimatum, The Print E-mail
Friday, 03 August 2007
As the posters proclaim, this time Jason Bourne comes home. But not before turning up in Moscow, London, Paris, Madrid and Tangier. These well-produced movies are even more globe-trotting than the James Bond series, to which they seem intended as a kind of counter-argument: this hero (Matt Damon again) is poker-faced, never cracks wise, sleeps with very few women, and, though he’s not encumbered by gadgets, cuts a wide swathe through his nearly as well-trained opponents. Also, his major enemies are, like Bourne himself, Americans—more corrupt than Bourne, and endangered by his relentless efforts to find out just who the hell he really is, and why he can kill people so efficiently.

The first movie of the three (the producers proclaim this will be the last one), “The Bourne Identity,” concentrated more on characterization than on action. We could identify with the confused, desperate Bourne, found floating in the Mediterranean, suffering from amnesia. There was an air of urgency to his quest to learn his identity, and his relationship with Maria (Franka Potente), who goes from his kidnap victim to lover, is the core of the film. Her death at the beginning of “The Bourne Supremacy” kicked Jason back into gear. She’s seen here only as a photograph.

The second and third outings were directed by Paul Greengrass, who manages to use that usually incredibly-annoying, quick-cut, moving-camera, fast-paced editing style as it always should be employed: we never lose track of the action, we’re always propelled from one cut to the next, and the screen throbs with energy. “The Bourne Ultimatum” is, if anything, even faster-paced and more action-packed than “Supremacy;” you hardly have time to catch your breath.

This time, however, there’s something of a weakness to this approach: there’s really not much in the line of a plot, so when things slow down to terse dialogue scenes, we’re impatient to get back to the action. We’re not given very many reasons to be interested in what the characters are talking about—and therefore, we’re not as interested in the characters as before.

This opens with Bourne where we last saw him, in Moscow, but he’s soon in Berlin, talking to Maria’s brother, mostly to fill newcomers in on what’s going on—but with just a little dialogue; Bourne is a man of action, not words. Bourne tells the brother, “Someone started all this, and I’m going to find them.” And bang, he’s off again.
The movie frequently cuts back to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and we again meet agent Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), who wants to bring Bourne in alive—she’s convinced he’s not a threat. But CIA chief Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn) has ordered Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) to stop Bourne in his tracks—to kill him. We see a menacing thug set out after Bourne, but it’s never entirely clear whose orders this guy is following.

In London, there’s an extremely intricate and well-designed sequence in which Bourne tries to make contact with Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), a reporter doing a series of articles on the mysterious Jason Bourne. Ross is under heavy CIA surveillance, followed by Vosen and Landy, plus their busy staff, via video and other hookups. But almost all this topnotch surveillance technology is checkmated by Bourne as it goes—Bourne counters them on the run. This all takes place in crowded railway terminals and the malls surrounding them, jammed with pedestrians of all sorts. It’s hard not to marvel at the intricacy of the planning that had to be in place in order to film this so effectively.

From Ross, Bourne learns a key word: “Blackbriar,” but not what it means. It’s connected with his past, however, and therefore he’s driven to find out what it means and who’s behind it all. Throughout the film, he has brief flashback memories of a hallway, a room, and a couple of mysterious figures, one of whom, he eventually learns, is CIA psychology chief Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney). He goes first to Paris, then to Madrid, where, he finds a photo of the man he later learns is Hirsch, together with CIA bureau chief Neal Daniels (Colin Stinton), who’s disappeared. While foiling Vosen’s men, Bourne again meets CIA agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who appeared in the first two movies.

She trusts him, and together they head for Tangier, Morocco, hoping to catch up with Daniels; knowing some kind of jig was up, he’s fled there with papers about “Blackbriar.” Meanwhile, Vosen has directed the CIA’s Casablanca-based “asset” (assassin) Desh (Joey Ansah) to go to Tangier to kill Daniel—and also Bourne and Parsons. This leads to at least one explosion and a chase on motor scooter and small motorcycle (Bourne rides it up stairs and over walls), which finishes up with astonishingly-photographed and –edited chase through the tightly-grouped houses of Tangier, with Parsons on the ground, Desh on an upper floor and Bourne above him, sometimes on rooftops. There’s a lot of leaping from balcony to balcony across the narrow, twisted alleys, and that eye-popping leap from rooftop to closed window shown in the trailers. The climax is a battle between Bourne and Desh in a cramped, tile-walled bathroom.

Bourne learns more about the meaning of “Blackbriar” and “Treadstone,” the operation he already knows he was involved in pre-amnesia. So he heads for New York, where Vosen and Landy—now at odds—have moved the base of operations. Vosen, as played by Strathairn, is a classic bureaucrat: almost prissy, he’s a by-the-book organization man who begins to feel the organization crumbling beneath him. He knows that Treadstone was the blackest of “black ops,” which led to the assassinations not just of the enemy, but innocent Americans. Landy demands to know what will put an end to all this. “When we WIN!” Vosen shouts—clearly without any idea of what winning really means in this context.

Like almost all peacetime espionage tales, the underlying point of all three “Bourne” movies is that ultimately, these covert operations become their own reason for existing. They’re not looking out for the interests of the country that finances them, they’re just trying to stay in operation because they’re making money or, as in Vosey’s case, it’s just what he does. Right and wrong, justice and treason—these are just words you plug into reports in order to justify what you’ve done. The screenplay by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi is casually cynical, almost routinely so; it’s primary a structure on which to hang the action scenes.

And there’s another in the streets of Manhattan. Bourne swiftly moves from one car to another, using each vehicle as a weapon as he batters his way across town. This is not a speedy chase as in “The French Connection,” this is a thunderously brutal melee of shrieking metal and shredding collisions at nearly deafening volume, like an explosion in a metal foundry. The end credits list what look like every stuntman now working in the U.S. and Europe, a list so long it’s literally almost funny. And the credits show just how many special effects were involved in the creation of this heart-stopping, fascinating-to-watch gigantic chase and battle. But you’ll never see the effects—you won’t have time to.

At the end, Bourne learns his original name and just how he became Jason Bourne. There’s nothing very surprising about all this; it’s pretty much what we expected all along. But the end of the film is not the destination; like the Road to Hana on Maui, with all those stunning views, sinuous curves and one-lane bridges, “The Bourne Ultimatum” is about the journey. It’s not as surprising and rich as the first film, not quite as breathtaking as the second, but it’s terrific summer entertainment. If this is the last “Bourne” movie, they’re going out with a bang.

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