Jason Bourne, man of multiple names and passports, is now three movies into a career as the world's most hotly pursued fugitive other than Harry Potter. Sought across glamorous datelines and establishing shots ("Paris, France") by the CIA agents who once had trained and used him, Bourne lives with constant danger but without personal baggage or a change of clothes, having long ago swapped his memory for a spy's tradecraft. You'd think a man with his problems and peculiar skills would sometimes decide to change his hair color, adopt a different wardrobe, put on a pair of Groucho glasses--anything to throw off the surveillance junkies, mind-control freaks and business-attired murderers of America's shadow government, who seem to operate everywhere against him. But Bourne stubbornly goes out in public wearing the face of Matt Damon, whose mug remains as invariable as his windbreaker and T-shirt.
This absence of disguise turns out to be the great joke of The Bourne Ultimatum, as it was (in retrospect) of the two previous Bourne adventures. As directed by Paul Greengrass, the new film patters along like a perpetual-motion étude, playing out an unbroken sequence of chases, fights, lies, betrayals, speed-smeared cuts and hand-held asymmetries, with very little held constant amid the blur except for the most recognizable actor. Improbably, hilariously, Matt Damon's Bourne hides in plain sight.
But instances of unconcealment abound in The Bourne Ultimatum. Since the trailer gives away one of the wittier examples--in which Bourne, having phoned his chief pursuer, laconically discloses that he's calling from the man's office--maybe you'll excuse me for mentioning a few more: the forged passport that's used just so it will be traced; the code that's employed in full knowledge that it will be broken; the truth that must never be revealed but is published in the Guardian at the start of the picture. If you were to stop and reflect at any point in The Bourne Ultimatum--a feat as likely, I'd say, as your managing to recite the Gettysburg Address while being tickled with a feather duster--you would notice that all operations in this movie are overt. The film's notion of maintaining a low profile? Stealing a New York City police car and crashing it through the Midtown streets.
Whether the source novel by Robert Ludlum was equally deliberate in its nonsense, I can't say. I have read enough of Ludlum to know that he, like other thriller writers of the 1970s and '80s, found the Church Committee report on CIA misdeeds to be a wonderful supplier of grotesqueries for his stories and of readers willing to believe the worst of their government. But although The Bourne Ultimatum is a Ludlum novel I haven't read, I'm reasonably sure this 1990 book did not accuse the CIA of wide-spectrum warrantless monitoring of telephone calls, forced rendition of suspects or the use of torture paraphernalia made famous in photographs from Abu Ghraib. These are features of our immediate era, as the movie's chief villain (David Strathairn) reminds us from his top-secret, antiterrorist panopticon, set high in a New York tower.
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Nothing timely intruded on the first film in the series. Released in 2002, The Bourne Identity lacked reference to any current events but made up for this omission with an evergreen critique of American policy toward developing nations, and also a little sex. Traditional pleasures: the light and color back then were painterly under Doug Liman's direction, the images sometimes lingered and Franka Potente in the skirt role offered Damon her own kind of dangerous foreign entanglement.
With the release of The Bourne Supremacy in 2004, the series gained momentum--perhaps too much of it. The images, under a new director, took on a jittery, you-are-there look, which in a less frantic mode had lent a sense of authenticity to Greengrass's quasi-factual Bloody Sunday. Meanwhile, with Potente dispatched from the story, the Bourne series no longer had a female character you could smell. The remaining women--played by Joan Allen and Julia Stiles--were portrayed as Yankee, blond, starched and sexually unaggressive; and Bourne became that much blander, seeming to forget the craziness of his predicament. He no longer surprised himself by what he could do, nor was he surprised any longer by the purposes for which he had been used. Power politics had dropped out of the story. The scandal in which Bourne was caught concerned only an agency's crimes, not a government's.
Now, with The Bourne Ultimatum, we can see that it took five years for the producers and distributors to establish this franchise and bring it into something like real time. The new film finally abandons the scandals of the Church Committee report era and the evasions of the rogue-organization theory in favor of a fully contemporary plot--one in which a few figures of probity (one of them, admittedly, slightly nuts) struggle against government officials who share Dick Cheney's low opinion of due process. A small achievement, you might say. But the movies are a novelty business. It's good for a thriller to be of its time, and amazing (considering the length of production schedules) for it to allude to something as recently exposed as the government's data-mining program.
As for the benefits (also arguably small) of franchise filmmaking: The Bourne Ultimatum gives you the satisfaction of seeing conventions fulfilled, then exceeded. You get the now-requisite off-road motorized chase, conducted this time along the alleys and staircases of Tangier, and it's better than the chases in The Bourne Supremacy. (Greengrass has learned that he doesn't have to direct at triple speed to make a summer blockbuster; double will do.) You get Damon's now-established transition from killing machine to weary, knuckle-bruised pugilist, and it's more touching than you'd remembered. Sex, unfortunately, is still out of the picture; but at least there's a muted hint of romance, made poignant by a reminiscence of Potente, and that too is an improvement over the previous Bourne.
Best of all, though, is the pervasive, deadpan gag of Damon's face, and of every other clandestine thing in The Bourne Ultimatum that's actually out in plain view. A spy races around the world, delving into governmental mysteries, and uncovers truths he might have read in the morning paper; a troubled man probes relentlessly into the origins of his trauma and discovers that the secret's been with him all along. From the trials of Jason Bourne, the unknown man whom everyone recognizes, I learn the obvious: Be careful what you ask for. Read the Guardian, because the worst crimes happen in full sight. And if you want to locate a CIA safe house anywhere in the world, just Google it. That's what Bourne does.