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Damon gets Bourne again to close out blockbuster season

by Glen Baity

Jason Bourne and I have at least one thing in common: Neither of us can remember what he’s been up to these past few years.

I know I saw The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy. I know I liked both of them. And that’s all I know. My memory has been wiped.

Thankfully, one doesn’t really need much prior knowledge going into The Bourne Ultimatum, the third and newest film. All you need to know – and this is helpfully summed up in the first 10 minutes – is as follows: Bourne (Matt Damon) was once an assassin for the US government, a remorseless killing machine carrying out top-secret assignments for a morally flexible CIA director.

Then something went haywire, Bourne’s memory was wiped, and the agency turned on him. He has been running ever since.

In Ultimatum, once again directed masterfully by Paul Greengrass, Bourne recovers traces of his own story thanks to a nosy journalist at The Guardian in London. Armed with a rough sketch of the events that led to his downfall, he heads back to where it all began to figure out how he came to join the Black Ops arm of the CIA. As a stand-alone story, it works just fine; I can only imagine it’s even better if your recollection of the first two films is better than mine.

Damon once again proves his action-hero chops as Bourne, though the character, necessarily, is something of a cipher. Like most cinematic covert agents, he’s a laconic fellow, all business all the time. Well, perhaps more than most: I didn’t count, but I think Damon has about 12 lines in the entire film. The rest of the time, like a beardless Chuck Norris, he’s talking with his fists.

He has a worthy set of adversaries in Deputy CIA Director Noah Vosen (the always-brilliant David Strathairn) and Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney), two of the only people in the world who know who Bourne really is and what he’s done.

For such a compelling series of films, the Jason Bourne story seems ridiculously light on plot (though I concede I’ve never read the Robert Ludlum novels on which it was based): Guy works for government, is betrayed, seeks revenge. The rest is action.

But man, what action it is. Whether bounding over rooftops, riding motorcycles through European alleyways, or diving off 10-story buildings, The Bourne Ultimatum is never boring. At less than two hours, it’s also a blazing quick ride. In a day and time when even mindless romantic comedies stretch past the 120-minute mark, it’s good to see a director who gets in, makes his point and speeds off while you’re still interested.

The film is shot almost entirely with handheld cameras, whose lenses lock onto the characters at close range. There aren’t many wide shots in this movie, and the most pulse-pounding action unfolds in frantic, close-up shots. That technique, which can easily lead to muddled, frustrating visuals, can be a movie’s ruin, but Greengrass manages the chaos well. The viewer is occasionally disoriented, but never loses the thread completely, and the claustrophobia brought on by the film’s close quarters only heightens the suspense. The effect is similar to last year’s Michael Mann powerhouse, Miami Vice. Nothing here takes place at a safe distance, and at its best, Ultimatum is captivating.

That stifling feeling also serves the wide streak of paranoia running through the film, one that couldn’t be more timely given the mounting suspicion of the US government here in the real world. There are several scenes that take place in a large command center stuffed to the gills with government snoops listening in on domestic phone conversations. I know it’s fiction, and call me loopy if you want to, but it’s increasingly hard to imagine a room like that not existing somewhere.

The beginning of August is also the beginning of the end for summer movie season, and unless I’m mistaken, The Bourne Ultimatum is the last big franchise picture of the warmer months. To say it’s among the best of the summer seems like faint praise, since it’s been a lackluster season in every category but box office revenues. But make no mistake: Ultimatum, a furious spy thriller exemplifying the best of the genre, could punch its weight in any time or place. It’s also that rarest of birds, a series from which I’d gladly welcome another story or two. A trilogy doesn’t seem to do it justice.

Swap conspiracy theories with Glen Baity when you send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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