Review: 'The Bourne Ultimatum' beats predecessors

For the third and supposedly final installment of the Jason Bourne saga, as conceived by late author Robert Ludlum, director Paul Greengrass (“United 93”) dispenses with the formalities and dives headlong into the action, as Bourne’s onetime handlers attempt to track and capture the killing machine they created.

The faces are familiar, and the motives the same — Bourne (Matt Damon) remains the amnesiac, lethally efficient operative who has gone dark, single-minded in his quest to recover his identity.

That’s bad news for the CIA bureaucrats who are perpetually two steps behind as Bourne engages them in a breathless chase from Moscow to New York, with intervening stops in Turin, Paris, London, Madrid and Tangier, Morocco. His journey is so briskly paced that the briefest moments of downtime arrive like overdue breathers, perhaps a concession to those with delicate hearts.

Yet those moments are surprisingly few. Even more than its brilliantly concise predecessors, “The Bourne Ultimatum” is lean and tightly focused, with each successive shot building toward a climax that has been promised ever since Bourne, so guilt-ridden over the nature of his work that he has suppressed years of harrowing memories, set out to find the monsters who trained him.

Damon, for his part, keeps things grounded with a steely-eyed performance as Bourne, who can be expressive when he wants to be (which is to say, rarely) and spends his days navigating effortlessly through run-ins with government-deployed assassins. Still, his is not the casual cool Damon brings to characters like Linus, his GQ-style con man from the “Ocean’s” movies. Bourne is terse but charismatic, a man on a singular mission that leads, in the end, to redemption; the daredevil stunts he executes with fluid ease are merely what is required to get past the lesser killers who stand in his way.

The “Bourne” series has always featured stellar supporting casts, and this installment is no exception: Joan Allen and Julia Stiles reprise their role as C.I.A. agents sympathetic to their most troublesome operative, while the peerless David Straitharn (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) replaces Brian Cox as the cold-blooded higher-up determined to silence him for good. Yet credit belongs also to Greengrass, whose jittery handheld camerawork and rapid-fire editing effectively sustain the film’s manic tension.

“The Bourne Ultimatum” is, like “The Fugitive,” an unrelenting, stylized manhunt, extended over the course of two riveting hours. It twists and turns without losing its footing, and its hero, an international man of mystery even to himself, is always ahead of the game, daring his would-be assailants — and the audience — to guess his next move. The trick is to try and keep up.

The Bourne Ultimatum ****

Starring Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, David Straitharn, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, Joan Allen

Written by Tony Gilroy, Scott Burns, George Nolfi

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Rated PG-13

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

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