This is the most satisfying thriller of the year, capping the Bourne trilogy taken from the Robert Ludlum novels. The films are faithful to those books in name only. Ludlum is one kind of popular storyteller. Director Paul Greengrass is another. Ludlum used 10 exclamation points in the two-page prologue to "The Bourne Ultimatum." The film version doesn't have time for exclamation points; it barely has time for dialogue.
The globe-trotting budget of "Ultimatum," rumored to be in the $130 million-$150 million range, is easily twice that of the last one. Potential disaster there. Was Greengrass giving in to blockblustery gigantism, simply because he could? Turns out he wasn't. The new one may zip all over the world, but it doesn't feel appreciably larger or more consciously dazzling than its predecessor. It is built for speed, like its bullet-headed protagonist.
Bourne's secret training program, Treadstone, has been rejiggered as something called "Blackbriar," and a Guardian newspaper reporter is about to break the story of this secret, below-the-radar spy program wide open. Bourne's ruthless former keepers interrupt a meeting between Bourne and the reporter in a London train station. This is the first of many action set-pieces, the most remarkable being an exhilarating rooftop chase through Tangier involving Bourne; his pursuer, Paz (Edgar Ramirez); Bourne's poker-faced ally Nicky (Julia Stiles, who really does seem like someone you could trust with a secret); and a passel of hapless Moroccan cops.
Nearly every Greengrass film features a "war room" and a war going on somewhere else. The figures of authority remain comfortably behind the control station, unable to control their situation. Here the smugly unctuous pooh-bah of power is played by David Strathairn, governmental shadow operation incarnate. At one grimacing moment in a breakfast meeting with Joan Allen, his intel inferior but in every way his superior, Strathairn's character orders a "heart-healthy omelet." Why? For his non-existent heart? Good line; good actor, making the most of a role spun out of exposition and twigs.
"The Bourne Ultimatum" hops from Moscow to London to Madrid to Tangier to New York City. To the screenwriters' credit you generally know why Bourne is where he is, wherever he is. Now and then the action threatens to grow as seizure-like as a Michael "Transformers" Bay outing. There are some major differences in approach, however. Bay rarely shows you anything like ordinary human behavior; he's a hopelessly kitschy glamorizer as well as an action thug. Greengrass, by contrast, knows how to work over an audience without pulling their collective spine out just for kicks, the way you suspect Bay would if he could and not get sued. In the one-on-one combat sequences, "Ultimatum" goes for the jugular, yet the violence doesn't have that wearying tinge of sadism so many thrillers rely upon. Composer John Powell, another alum of the previous "Bourne" pictures, complements the mayhem rather than competing with it.
Greengrass has said he brings no particular ideological agenda to this series, but he can be forgiven for fudging the truth. The whole movie plays like a caffeinated essay on the craziness of contemporary surveillance, with Bourne continually zooming his former employers at their own computer-hacking, voice-activating, wire-tapping game. Near the end we get the "one bad apple" speech from Allen's character, designed to isolate the weasel portrayed by Strathairn, in which she affirms her belief in America and whatever it does, within limits, in the name of counter-terrorism. But Greengrass doesn't give this speech much emphasis. Leave the good and evil business to Tom Clancy, Greengrass seems to be saying. "The Bourne Ultimatum" may be fantasy, and it has its share of movie-stupid lines such as "Do you have any idea who you're dealing with?" But as a cinematic rush with one fleet foot in the real world, it's a hell of a show.
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