It’s been a long, contusion-filled road for Jason Bourne, the amnesiac assassin who’s spent two movies alternating between trying to piece together his past (“The Bourne Identity”) and avenging the murder of his girlfriend (“The Bourne Supremacy”). During that time, he’s been beaten, shot, blown up, and has squared off against a succession of shady CIA officials, all portrayed by the underappreciated character actor du jour (Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and – here – David Strathairn). Very loosely based on the works of Robert Ludlum, the Bourne movies have always been characterized by frenetic chase sequences, impressively brutal fight choreography, and a welcome devotion to non-CG automobile mayhem.
“The Bourne Ultimatum” starts right where “Supremacy” left off, with Bourne (Matt Damon) fleeing Moscow police. While field dressing a wound, he suffers a flashback involving some sort of training session and a bit of water tank torture. Having achieved closure with the offspring of his first government-sanctioned murder in the last movie, Bourne decides to set his sights on the people who made him what he is, which means another violence-fueled romp through a number of exotic locales, culminating in what we must assume will be a final confrontation with those responsible for turning him into a ruthless killing macheen.
Like the first Bourne films, “Ultimatum” is a tense and often gripping effort. Damon and director Paul Greengrass have both helped to develop a thoroughly engaging franchise, with the latter ably capturing the former’s a*s-kicking prowess. The two have slipped comfortably into their respective roles, picking up “Supremacy’s” threads without a hitch.
But if there’s anything bad to say about “Ultimatum,” it’s that perhaps Greengrass and three-time Bourne screenwriter Tony Gilroy has grown too comfortable with the franchise. There are the requisite thrilling chase scenes, including a fine foot-race across the rooftops of Tangiers, and they wisely elected not to try and top “Supremacy’s” superb climactic car chase (though this one ain’t half bad). But for all the combat, you get the sense the third movie is merely coasting along. We know Bourne is more or less the baddest dude on the planet, and could probably take on Col. Guile, Sub-Zero, and Liquid Snake at the same time, but maybe enough is enough.
The characters of Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) and Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) are also trotted out once again, but both are actually given fairly hefty roles for once, and Strathairn’s Noah Vosen is by turns coldly evil and grossly incompetent as the head of the CIA’s covert ‘Blackbriar’ operation (as is the case with the real CIA, one suspects).
Which brings me to the movie’s most hilarious problem; Landy repeatedly tries to convince Bourne to trust her, ultimately distancing herself from Vosen’s executive assassin program by claiming, “This isn’t us.” It isn’t? You mean the Central Intelligence Agency, when not failing to accurately assess the stability of the Eastern Bloc or gauge al Qaeda’s capacity to attack the mainland United States, hasn’t maintained a 60-year campaign of destabilization, murder and deception? Wow. Someone should notify the estates of Mohammed Mosaddeq and Jacobo Arbenz.
“The Bourne Ultimatum” is a perfectly serviceable action movie…better than most, in fact. The entire premise is growing creaky, however, leading us to think we might want to leave this particular spy out in the cold a while, before he becomes completely tiresome.