Thursday, August 2, 2007

He was "Bourne" to run

Summary: The story in "The Bourne Ultimatum" is relatively simple: Spy loses memory. Spy isn't sure who's using him and for what purposes. Spy tires to find out who he really is and why so many people want to kill him. But in the third installment, director Paul Greengrass destabilizes and complicates the narrative, pushing us into a topsy-turvy world where nothing seems to count as much the ability to speed through one perilous situation after another. The approach calls for equal amounts of popcorn and Dramamine.

"The Bourne Ultimatum" represents Greengrass' second run at the series, following in the wake of his slightly less frenetic "Bourne Supremacy." Employing the frenetic style that seems to mark most of his movies, Greengrass takes a host of action ingredients, tosses them into a bag and shakes the living daylights out of them -- and us.

At times, logic goes by the boards in favor of intense surges of action. Bourne, for example, is pursued by the C.I.A., which evidently can follow his movements by activating its nearly ubiquitous surveillance equipment. The C.I.A. can't take its electronic eyes off Bourne, which leads us to believe that it might have occurred to him (or more importantly to the screenwriters) to allow him a disguise or two.

Maybe the filmmakers wanted Matt Damon, who has turned Bourne into his franchise role, to provide the audience with an anchor in the midst of a tumultuous narrative sea. Damon, all squared-off corners and more business-like than an annual meeting, maintains a sense of purpose within the movie's convulsive movement. Bourne may not know his true identity, but we never doubt his determination to find out.

Despite the presence of a strong cast -- Joan Allen, David Straithairn, Paddy Considine and (briefly) Albert Finney -- "Bourne Ultimatum" hardly qualifies as an actor's movie. The actors fit into the swirling rhythms Greengrass so insistently creates and which sometimes obscure the moral questions at the heart of a story based on the work of novelist Robert Ludlum. What precisely are we entitled to do to protect American lives? How far should we go? And in a morally murky world, what exactly would victory look like anyway?

Greengrass, whose agitated technique served him well in "United 93" and "Bloody Sunday," probably overplays his hand here. "The Bourne Ultimatum" makes your pulse race, although at some point, you may be tempted to ask exactly where you're headed. The mixture of action, electronics and intel jargon -- plenty smart in the early going -- energizes a globe-hopping plot that doesn't bother to dot every "i' or cross every "t." An example: We never learn how Bourne finances the kind of travel that might earn enough frequent-flyer miles to keep half of Europe airborne for a decade.

Tossed into a world he doesn't fully understand, Bourne taps the inner resources that percolate just beneath his stoic surface. And Greengrass tries to keep us at Bourne's level. I'm not sure what it means, but at the end of all this cascading barrage of action, I wasn't so much as identifying with Bourne as hoping he'd at least get a long weekend off.

I was confident that he -- like the rest of us -- had had enough running around in the movie's skillful, marathon-length set pieces, the prime (and best) example taking place at London's Waterloo Station.

Greengrass has made a mostly entertaining movie, but toward the end I had trouble giving myself over to it. Maybe that's because Greeengrass also has proven that it's possible for a movie to move so fast, it practically runs over its own intelligence.

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