The Bourne Ultimatum: A Macho Fantasy

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Jasin Boland / Universal / AP

Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum.

CIA assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has come to Tangier to — I forget the whats and whys, and, honestly, The Bourne Ultimatum doesn't much care either — but he's trying to find his lone ally, government agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) before she's caught and killed by rival hitman Dash (Joey Ansah). While a police posse is chasing Bourne, he's hopscotching across rooftops, wrapping a sheet around his hand to vault over a wall with shards of glass on it, and somehow keeping track of the elusive Nicky in a big, unfamiliar city. Maybe our super-spy's brain, earlier rewired by The Company, has been accessorized with a Google Earth chip implant.

Bourne crashes through a window into the apartment where Dash just happens to be, and the two martial artists go at each other like ultimate fighters, using every fist and foot, every ounce of strength and dirty trick, every piece of furniture and plumbing at their disposal, while the camera is often perched just beneath the ceiling to keep from getting whacked as collateral damage. I'd be more specific in my description of this fight — which might have been made to prove Alfred Hitchcock's thesis that killing a man is damn hard work — but I was too excited to take notes. The battle is as long as it is ferocious, and in the audience I saw the movie with, nobody took a breath until it was over. Then they exhaled in a noise that exploded into a cheer.

The first episodes of the movie trilogy based on Robert Ludlum's novels — The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004) — picked up the reputation as a thinking man's spy series. Certainly they were darker, grimier, than the old James Bond films and their glitzy clones. (The latest Bond, Casino Royale, took some cues from the Bournes: made the hero more brutal, gave the visual a hint of grit.) But the notion of an amnesiac agent, a spy with no past, born into a web of intrigue, search for his true identity, is not automatically Oedipus Rex. Bourne, who needs no sleep or food or pee breaks, no downtime at all, he's closer to the Terminator, a national-security murder machine. Or, to give Bourne a literary benefit of the doubt, one of those questing creatures from a Philip K. Dick story: a robot who dreams he's human and struggles to determine if the dream is true.

No, the movies, even more than the Ludlum books (which long ago I consumed with equal velocity and voraciousness), are themselves machines: beautifully constructed, splendid to behold. And in this third and possibly final episode, directed by Paul Greengrass from a script by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi, the series has come close to attaining a kinetic perfection. If Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down was the all-war war movie — nearly two hours of nonstop battles — The Bourne Ultimatum is the all-action action movie. A pounding of the eyes and ears (John Powell's score is all urgent percussion), the movie is one continuous, exhausting, exhilarating chase.

Eluding or dispatching bad guys, fighting off six at a time in a stairwell, wrecking more autos than in a NASCAR blooper reel, Bourne speeds from London to Berlin to Tangier to New York City. Meanwhile his itinerary is monitored by CIA types — the pompous, desperate, George Tenet-y David Strathairn, and the more sympathetic, Hillaryesque Joan Allen — on world-scanning computer screens. They might be watching a video game. Certainly they're trying to play Bourne like one: Grand Theft Ego. He's a weapon they created, but to their chagrin he's in control of the trigger; he keeps going off and killing the thugs they've assigned to kill him. "He's really good at staying alive," Allen says of Bourne, extending the movie-monster motif, "and trying to kill him just pisses him off."

Allen, Strathairn and the movie's other middle-age co-stars photograph about 20 years older than they did in their last films; Scott Glenn's face has the bas-relief road-map look of the aged W.H. Auden. That's partly to isolate the younger Damon generationally as well as geographically from his handlers, but mainly because Greengrass and cinematographer Oliver Wood are going for a verismo feel. The director, who last year did the excellent docudrama United 93, has defined his Bourne location work as guerrilla filmmaking — using concealed cameras in "wild" situations — and he overuses the hand-held shaky-cam to shout, visually, that this is all real, man! "You couldn't make this stuff up," Glenn's chracter wrily observes, as if the audience doesn't know it's watching a spy thriller.

It's in those rare moments when the movie slows down, as it does for plot-requisite conversations at the beginning and the end, that The Bourne Ultimatum seems empty and ill-used, like an interrogation room after a waterboarding. Greengrass cuts each action scene into agitated bits; but he can't let fast enough alone. Could he please explain why, in the chat scenes, the camera is afflicted with Parkinson's? The film frame trembles, obscures the speaker with the listener's shoulder, annoys viewers and distracts them from the content of the scene. It surely interrupted my enjoyment of the movie; for a minute I wanted to give it a good spanking.

Greengrass isn't alone among serious directors who, when they make an action film, want it to be More Than. Well, forget that. Just get an audience caught up in the Bourne web. Making a good action film is its own conspicuous achievement, and Greengrass is a superb spinner of plates. And conductor of stunts. And car scenes. Bourne runs through three or four each movie — those indestructo-cars that can be rammed and smashed, spun, stripped and flipped and still outrace and outlast all pursuers.

In Damon, Greengrass has an improbable but plausible Bourne. Moviegoers are so used to seeing Damon smile that he becomes someone else when he relaxes his features. His Bourne is a man of three expressions: going blank, which gives his features the slackness of a new corpse; showing wariness of imminent danger or unmasking, like a naughty schoolboy who realizes he's being watched; and, an instant later, getting taut, in situations where he expects the worst and tries to be prepared for it. The strategy is simple but effective. Damon uses the ordinariness of his appearance to help make Bourne invisible to his enemies, a working-class hero to the audience.

That's the secret of this character, and Bond and John McClane and all the other action-movie studs. They are a projection of American power — or a memory of it, and the poignant wish it could somehow return. In real life, as a nation these days, we can achieve next to nothing. But in the Bourne movies just one of us, grim, muscular and photogenic, can take on all villains, all at once, and leave them outwitted, dead, disgraced. That's a macho fantasy of the highest, purest, most lunatic order.