THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM

PG-13

-By Frank Lovece


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Third time out, most movie series suffer—for every Goldfinger, there's detritus a'dozen like Beverly Hills Cop III, The Godfather Part III, Jaws 3-D and Die Hard with a Vengeance. Yet happily, the golden touch has fingered The Bourne Ultimatum, the last of the original three books by the late espionage novelist Robert Ludlum. (An authorized fourth book has just been written by Eric Van Lustbader—figure The Bourne Legacy goes into production after this film deservedly rakes it in.)

More Ronin than Mission: Impossible, this dazzling third act brings answers to amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne (if that's even his real name). But not, of course, until he's crossed enough ethical and international borders to go down to Hell on frequent-flyer miles. Director Paul Greengrass, in his second consecutive outing, takes the kinetic clarity and moral muddle of prime John Frankenheimer and fits it into his own style of jerky, handheld-camera intrusiveness—one that doesn't seem documentary-like so much as it gives you the sense that you're following Bourne and eavesdropping on his conversations. Greengrass also proves himself heir to Frankenheimer's rightly suspicious spirit, which found governments intrinsically amoral, and only as honest and lawful as the people in charge.

Shot in London, New York, Paris, Munich, Madrid and Tangiers, plus someplace subbing for Moscow, the movie finds Bourne wrapping up a tragic loose end from the previous film and then searching for the jigsaw-puzzle pieces that might complete the picture of who and what he is and why the CIA wants him sanctioned. We are not, of course, talking economic sanctions.

A column by British journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) gets our spy to come in from the cold and into damp but balmy London. An errant phrase the reporter utters on his cell-phone, "Operation Blackbrier," gets picked up as satellite-surveillance chatter, and soon CIA director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn) and New York Anti-Terrorism Unit chief Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) want the hapless sap taken out. It's a measure of what America has become that as an audience we accept without debate scenes of civilian writers and reporters under warrantless wiretaps, and the CIA, despite the highest laws of our country stating otherwise, sending assassins to take out a reporter—unilaterally and without oversight declared a "security threat." Thank goodness for high-level operative Pam Landy (Joan Allen), who starts off as the shrewd profiler called in to corral Bourne via remote-access agents, but quickly sees something rotten in Spookville—and not just because CIA official Vosen call this an NSA project, which is roughly like Joe Torres telling the Yankees that the Red Sox manager is coaching this game.

Whoever's playing, they're little match for Bourne's tradecraft, which Greengrass lays out in some remarkable set-pieces. The first has Bourne and the reporter at Waterloo Station eluding half the U.S. spies in London; another runs the winding streets and cramped rooftops of Tangiers. As well, the hand-to-hand fight scenes are both choreographed and filmed with extraordinarily skill, giving full-frame exchanges and careful cutting that doesn't cheat; one fatal battle in a tight, tiled bathroom is as thrilling as Robert Shaw and Sean Connery's classic train-compartment combat in From Russia with Love. And Julia Stiles, reprising her role as CIA agent Nicky Parsons, is no melty Bond Girl but a capable, if outclassed, professional.

Cat-and-mouse? Make that cougar and capybara. By the time Albert Finney waddles into frame, seemingly doing his best Andy Rooney, Bourne is getting the answers he thought he wanted. And for all the jumping unscathed through glass and the super-science that could track a dust mote through a sandstorm, the only thing that strains belief is a government agent testifying honorably before Congress, without perjury or flipping the bird at a subpoena.



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