The Damon Pandemonium
If you sit through The Bourne Ultimatum waiting to hear some sort of ultimatum, you will wait in vain. But true fans of the adventures of the reluctant spy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) won’t let that disappoint them. And even those normally resistant to the relentless surveillance, chessboard maneuvers and apocalyptic violence of Bourne’s workaday world will probably have a good time, thanks to the nimble vérité agility of director Paul Greengrass.
The Matt Damon Bourne pictures continue to diverge from the novels on which they ostensibly are based. This is probably unavoidable, since the books originally pitted Bourne against the super-assassin Carlos the Jackal, whereas the real Carlos (a garden-variety leftist terrorist) is currently rotting in a French prison cell. Here, all that’s left of Robert Ludlum’s book is the title, with its ultimatum that never comes (conforming to Ludlum’s traditional “the” followed by a proper name and a suitably enigmatic noun), and the character of Bourne himself, a wily lone wolf adept at hand-to-hand combat and haunted by flashes of his past and elusive clues to his true identity.
Not that writers Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi are at any loss for giving their handsome star things to do. After a brief opening scene in which British journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) meets a mysterious informant and learns of the existence of Jason Bourne and something called “Operation Blackbriar,” the movie takes off at a full gallop that scarcely lets up even as Bourne globe-hops from London to Madrid to Tangier to Manhattan with the sort of instantaneous transportation that only seems to happen in movies like this. (One of these days, just for the hell of it, I’d like to see a movie where our action hero spends 45 minutes going through airport security, an hour on the runway waiting for clearance to take off, and another 90 minutes snaking his way through customs. Probably not much box office in that, though.)
In London, Ross carelessly mentions Blackbriar in a cell-phone conversation, which brings him to the attention of a roomful of eavesdroppers led by sinister Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), a rogue CIA manager who’s hunting for the elusive Bourne. You have to understand—the CIA of The Bourne Ultimatum is the CIA so beloved of moviemakers and black-van conspiracy buffs: Let the Agency get your face on a spy cam or pick up one careless word from your cell phone, and in 60 seconds they know everything you’ve done since you lost your virginity in the back seat of your dad’s Oldsmobile Cutlass in 1983.
The real CIA can only gnash its teeth with envy. For the movie CIA, however, it’s all in a day’s work as Vosen dispatches an assassin at a moment’s notice to pick off Ross and Bourne in a crowded shopping mall. Bourne escapes, Ross doesn’t, and if I recall correctly from the flurry of activity, the assassin fails to escape Bourne.
In the course of the next few days, Bourne proves as impervious to bullets, explosives and local law enforcement as he is to the vicissitudes of air travel, bounding away from bombs, firefights and multi-vehicle pileups with implacable ease, seldom resorting to the streets when rooftops will do. Along the way he picks up sidekick Nicky Parsons in Madrid (Julia Stiles, returning from The Bourne Supremacy), but by the time he gets to New York, Nicky’s been dropped in favor of Pamela Landy (Joan Allen, also from Supremacy), who’s being set up to take the fall for Vosen and CIA Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn). Along the way, in Bourne’s flashes of memory, we get glimpses of Albert Finney, as well, but his role in all this is too deep in the plot to go into here.
Are you writing all this down? No matter. What’s really important is that Damon takes all the mayhem in stride with square-jawed deadpan insouciance, and that director Greengrass sweeps us from one set-piece to the next with the semi-documentary style and energy that is his stock in trade (and is put to arguably more serious use in movies like Bloody Sunday and United 93).
But again, don’t expect to hear any ultimatum in the sense of an “or else” demand. Or in the literal sense of a “last word.” Don’t expect this to be the last word on Damon’s Bourne, either.