THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM directed by Paul Greengrass, written by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi from the novel by Robert Ludlum, with Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn and Joan Allen. 111 minutes. A Universal release. Opens Friday (August 3). Rating: NNNN
Okay, I'll admit it. My money was on Ben Affleck. Matt Damon was too recessive an actor, Affleck is better-looking and perfectly willing to whore his talent, which seems to work. People shouldn't have been surprised by his ruefully self-aware performance in Hollywoodland.
Back around the time of The Legend Of Bagger Vance, the idea of Matt Damon getting his own high-powered action franchise would have seemed bizarre. That the Bourne trilogy, based on a series of incomprehensible thrillers by Robert Ludlum, would be such a satisfying set of movies is a tribute to both the star and the producers who hired unexpected directors to guide them.
In The Bourne Ultimatum, lethal amnesiac Jason Bourne comes home to find out who he is and why the CIA keeps trying to kill him. Julia Stiles gets the obligatory girl role, Joan Allen is back, and David Strathairn and Scott Glenn step into the evil spymaster roles previously occupied by Chris Cooper and Brian Cox. (I occasionally suspect that films like The Bourne Ultimatum exist so that distinguished middle-aged character actors can growl, "I need eyes on the street, people.")
Director Paul Greengrass returns to guide the cast as they run furiously around the streets of London, Madrid, Tangiers and New York, and the genre material benefits greatly from his paranoid documentary style. Outside of the car chases, I don't think there's a shot in the film that isn't hand-held and almost adrift in the chaotic environments. It's as if the movie were spying on itself.
This style, which Greengrass also used in The Bourne Supremacy and United 93, works on the audience's nerves. We always know where we are (it's not a Michael Bay movie), but there's nothing we can lock onto as a reference point. (At least one of my colleagues felt a touch of motion sickness after the screening, but I didn't. It's not Breaking The Waves.)
Our only secure point is Bourne himself, played by Damon as an impenetrable enigma. It's an appropriate choice: if Bourne doesn't know who he is, how can we? Damon's willingness to disappear into roles is a running joke in the Ocean's Eleven movies. In the Bourne trilogy, it's his great virtue. He disappears into a character who specializes in being invisible.
Writer Tony Gilroy has pulled the series into the post-9/11 era. The first two films are both very much products of the books' 70s sensibility, even if they jettison the plots.
David Strathairn's Noah Vosen is not an old Cold Warrior, though he's definitely a loyal Bushie, and we can't help but notice his fondness for overreaction based on faulty intelligence. On the other hand, I chuckled slightly when Joan Allen's Pamela Landy decries his behaviour as not being in the best traditions of the agency. She must not have read Tim Weiner's brilliant Legacy Of Ashes: The History Of The CIA.