Busy Being Bourne

The taut Bourne Ultimatum brings the breathless trilogy to a crashing close.

The Bourne film trilogy is one lean, mean movie machine. Rarely has any single action film received the plaudits and praise lavished on The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and now The Bourne Ultimatum. It's hard enough for any high-speed explosion-athon to garner serious attention from critics, much less the kind of positive reinforcement with which Bourne has been increasingly blessed. To do so over a three-movie span with a midstream change of director and a systematic and rather severe deviation from novelist Robert Ludlum's beloved source material is nothing short of miraculous. That's what Bourne has been, though. And yet, the films are sometimes praised for exactly the wrong reason.

The single word that gets thrown around ' just about as much as the series' eponymous adrenaline-charged amnesiac Jason Bourne does ' is "smart." The three movies are widely championed as the thinking person's answer to action films. But that's not really what they are. The story of the spy who stayed out in the cold to try to jog his faulty memory is long and twisty, but not especially well-constructed when you break it all down. It's not that the Bourne scripts, helmed by Tony Gilroy, are stupid; it's just that there is a world of a difference between "smart" and "not stupid."

There is an intelligence at play, but it's not in any of what you would call its more obvious intellectual constructs ' and certainly not in its overly complicated government-agents-run-wild plot points. The smartness is in the series' gut-level, smash-and-grab chaos, a visceral vibe that directors Doug Liman (Identity) and Paul Greengrass (Supremacy and Ultimatum) leave wisely unadorned and immediate. The films don't get in their own way, the action is authentic and relentless, and everything is exceptionally well-choreographed and well-shot. For all the talk about how smart it is, The Bourne Ultimatum is an absolute triumph of style over substance. It's all about the presentation.

Ultimatum implements a curious time-warp element at its opening that melds its time frame with that of the previous film. To truly understand the over-the-top complexities of Jason Bourne's travel schedule, consult the first handy Internet chat room. It doesn't really seem to matter in the larger scheme of things, just a nice nod to detail-driven fans. Basically, Bourne (Matt Damon) is still on the run, but he's never been very good at playing the prey. With Marie (Franka Potente, seen here in flashbacks) dead from an assassin's bullet intended for the back of his own head, Bourne decides to follow the bureaucratic bread crumbs past her killers and all the way back to his own beginning. Finding out who he really is, he thinks, will free him of all of this.

And so a frantic race begins. His national-security keepers ' series newcomer Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) and familiar face Pam Landy (Joan Allen) among them ' want to bag Bourne, each for their own reasons, and warrantless wiretaps are the least of what they've got in their bag of dirty tricks. Bourne has to stay a step ahead and find out what they know (and even more that they don't). Along the way, he encounters an enterprising reporter (Paddy Considine), re-encounters agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) and fights his way across at least three continents.

In one of the film's only catch-his-breath interludes, Bourne acknowledges halfway through that finding out how he became a killer on the run really won't change the things he has done. But the getting there is all he has. And that's just like the movie itself.

Greengrass (United 93) brings back his signature shaky-cam style, placing his lens up close and personal for every punch and every collision. Cars crash into the camera, not away from it. The audience isn't watching Bourne run through the mouse maze of Moroccan city streets; we're right behind him. And when the last little bit of air escapes from the Bourne-crushed windpipe of a would-be assassin, we feel the death and regret and resolve in the tiny room. Damon is blank-slate enough to provide that level of intimacy and yet present enough to make Bourne a hard-luck hero. For a title character, he speaks very little, and yet Damon's tightly wound weariness comes through enough to make Bourne the absolute center of this constantly shifting storm of his own unintentional making.

If there is one thing about Ultimatum that can truly and rightfully be labeled brainy, it's the movie's handful of final scenes. The film's final reveal is not altogether unexpected, given all that has transpired, and yet its artfully underplayed construction and execution lends it, and by extension the entire series, a wonderfully subversive wit. And that sort of minimalist touch starts to feel a whole lot like ' dare I say? ' smarts.