Paul Greengrass rounds off Robert Ludlum's Bourne trilogy with The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), a movie that (as implied by the term) is designed to really move.
The story's a considerable departure from the source novels--Robert Ludlum's spy thriller of the same name, published in 1990, featured an elaborate plot that has Bourne and real-life terrorist Carlos the Jackal in a showdown; the movie jettisons the novel's narrative for a more streamlined premise: having lost his identity, his love (Franka Potente, in The Bourne Supremacy (2004)) and his peace of mind, he's come gunning for the man who created him and started this whole mess.
It's not a bad action flick. Greengrass keeps Bourne hopping from Moscow to Madrid to Tangiers to New York (you wonder where he gets the funds, or how with so many false identities he ever manages to log any frequent flier miles); showcases the kind of top-of-the-line surveillance equipment the Mission Impossible team might drool over with envy; stages enough face-smashing, bone-crunching, larynx-crushing fight sequences to leave the audience feeling bruised for a week.
In Matt Damon the director has the perfect Bourne, a blank slate of an actor against which Greengrass can inflict his intensely propulsive style. Damon's responses are--to put it kindly--minimalist (he's miles away from the first movie's Bourne, who managed to put a "gee whiz!" expression on every time he discovers a sudden facility with, say, a throwing knife). Makes some kind of dramatic sense, actually: Damon's Bourne, after all he's suffered and lost, has numbed himself into becoming the flawless tracking and killing machine he's been trained to become; what traces of humanity are left can be read, like so many lightning flickers, on his largely unmoving jaw. Damon is the new millennium's Keanu Reeves--a handsome camera subject who turns passive serenity into Zen and astounding cool.
As for the director himself--it's a bit off-putting to think that the handheld style Greengrass used for Bloody Sunday (2002), his docudrama on the 1972 massacre of Irish protesters by British troops, could be so handily turned around and used for commercial Hollywood fare like this; it cheapens the achievement of the earlier, better film, suggests that the "you are there" feeling Greengrass created is just his way of pumping up excitement, no matter what material he's handling. To be fair, the camerawork here is genuinely exciting (if a tad incoherent and more than a little nauseating), and manages to suggest Bourne's unstable view of the world, suggest that stripped of a real identity Bourne lacks any firm foundation on which to build an otherwise normal life--hence the jitters.
Sometimes Greengrass does more than mimic Bourne's nerviness--in Tangiers when Bourne runs up a stairway, the camera lingers on a railing for a moment, presumably to appreciate some lovely metal grillwork; later, said camera pauses to capture moonlight filtering down through the waters of Manhattan's East River. Greengrass does know how to create a memorable image; you only wish he would do it more often.
Part of why Greengrass uses this immersion-blender style of filmmaking, one suspects, is to draw attention away from the movie's plotholes--why, for example, does Bourne keep chasing the "assets" (CIA speak for "assassins") every time they make an attempt on him or one of his targets? He of all people should know that these men are mere instruments, that he'll learn nothing from them, and that killing them would achieve nothing useful (at one point he actually puts one of his contacts, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), in danger by not going straight back to her). And why, later in the picture, does Bourne let CIA Deputy Chief Noah (David Strathairn) learn his true location? He could have used the extra minutes to get clean away (less suspense, I know, but seeing supposedly smart people act dumb for the sake of thrills is irritating). And since when does an interrogation room in a supposedly high-security building have a nearby window overlooking a river?
Details, details--but God, or at least art, is in the details, one might argue. Greengrass may have hoped to cover flaws up with his docudrama style; at the same time he raises expectations of at least achieving some reasonable measure of realism with that same style (we expect--no, we demand--to see something not altogether fantastic, the same time we expect to see something we've never seen before; Greengrass has to tread a fine line between the plausible and the impossible, and his step is more than a little unsteady).
In the end, Bourne has his confrontation, and fittingly enough, it's with Albert Finney. Yes, I suppose to American ears an English accent is the epitome of evil (why else are so many movie villains British?) but more than just some cliché figurehead, Finney represents the kind of reasonable, even earnest, intellectual you imagine can be found in the government, the kind that using sufficient logic has determined the need for a Jason Bourne--for a living weapon forged from the hollowed-out shell of a man.
Neat climax and conclusion. A tad too optimistic for my taste (what, yet another fax machine saves the day?), and the movie as a whole ultimately lacks heft to be truly memorable. I mean--dirty ops in the CIA? Stop the presses! The only wonder is that not enough attention has been directed at intelligence agencies and their more shadowy activities (governments feel the need for these units, while the press apparently has lost the stomach for rooting them out). But we're talking of Robert Ludlum, of course, who has talent enough to make his plots and settings halfway convincing, even compelling, but doesn't quite have the talent to hit us where we live.
Which reminds me of Fernando Mereilles, and his adaptation of John Le Carre's The Constant Gardener (2005)--a whole other pot of stew, though the two seem indistinguishable at first. Similar shaky-cam tendencies, similar references to current events, similar attempt at geopolitical entertainment. But Le Carre is after bigger fish--has been for some time. His is a canvas writ large about the sins and subtleties of Big Pharma, of multinational drug companies that underscore market share and profits, sometimes at the expense of African lives.
More, Le Carre has at the center of his taut little thriller the tale of a husband who suspects his late wife of adultery; who attempts to get at the truth of the matter; who by film's end tries to honor her memory and intentions the best way he can. For Ludlum espionage is a means of selling more copies of his books; for Le Carre, espionage is a metaphor for the human condition--the way we are secret to others, sometimes to ourselves; the way we "run" others much as the government runs its agents; the way we often betray those we love even as we believe we're being utterly faithful to their memory. The Bourne Ultimatum is decent fun but there's much, much better out there, if you care to take a look.
(First published in Businessworld, 8/17/07)