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“Moscow, Russia.” Uh-oh: The dateline-for-dummies announcement in the very opening scene of The Bourne Ultimatum doesn’t bode well for the third installment of the action franchise. And, yes, sequences set in “Paris, France” and “London, England” follow. Ultimatum’s predecessors, 2002’s The Bourne Identity and 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, were already much like their titular amnesiac’s life—exciting but forgettable. Did returning director Paul Greengrass and two new scripters (along with Tony Gilroy, who wrote the previous films based on Robert Ludlum’s novels) decide to further water down Jason Bourne’s allegedly final adventure, just in case the audience’s wits were as weak as the super-spy’s memory?
Well, sort of. In addition to the obvious placards, Gilroy and co-writers Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi aren’t aces when it comes to dialogue, which makes Ultimatum sound a lot dumber than it is. Bourne himself (Matt Damon) isn’t much affected, considering that most of what he’s asked to do is run, run, run as he dodges his former employer, the CIA, while trying to figure out his true identity—all he knows about his life is that he’s a killing machine, his girlfriend was murdered, and people who tend to have weapons think he’s dangerous. More problematic are the cliché-spouting supporting characters, particularly David Strathairn’s barky agency head, Noah Vosen. Vosen, slickly dressed, frequently pacing, and often shot from low angles, couldn’t look any more impressive. But then he opens his mouth: “Where is he, people?” he demands of his furiously tapping surveillance crew. “We can’t afford to lose this guy, people!” “I pay you people to find people, people!”
OK, I made that last one up, but it’d fit right in with the rest of Vosen’s ridiculous spiels as he struggles to find Bourne, who he believes is either the “source”—of something bad, presumably—“or after the source like we are.” Vosen is determined to kill Bourne if he has to, to the alarm of Agent Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), who tussled with the spy in Supremacy but now believes he’s a good guy who doesn’t like it when violent strangers chase him. Also on his side is Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), another CIA operative who’s targeted for guilt by association when it appears that she’s helping Bourne.
But despite a few other tired details (why do spies always break into the homes of whomever they’re visiting, for example?) and a bit of melodrama (Bourne’s memories are laughably always accompanied by hyperventilation and, often, the addled guy falling to his knees), The Bourne Ultimatum is as consistently gripping a thriller as you’ll see all summer. What the filmmakers do best is what’s most important—crafting nonstop cat-and-mouse scenes spiked with breathtaking, original action. Greengrass relies on the irritating shaky-cam significantly less this time around, using it just enough to add grit as the spy is pursued throughout tight, colorful global locales (the money chase scene consists of Bourne dashing through the alleys of Tangier on a moped) while accompanied by a heart-
thumping tribal soundtrack. Ultimatum is a satisfying—and, ultimately, smart—finale to the sleeper franchise. But its success is dubious. When Bourne, about to discover what he’s been running after this whole time, intones, “This is where it ends,” you may be thinking, for the first time this summer, that a threequel is no longer enough.