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‘Ultimatum’ is ‘Bourne’ to thrill

Excitement may be all the film has to offer, but you will be entertained. By John Hartl

Thanks primarily to the memory-challenged spy, Jason Bourne, Matt Damon got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last month.

Although Damon played the title roles in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Saving Private Ryan,” and he won an Oscar for co-writing “Good Will Hunting,” it’s an espionage-movie franchise that seems destined to become his ticket to lasting fame.

Damon thinks Bourne is the opposite of James Bond, who “kills people and laughs and sips martinis and wisecracks about it” (as the actor pointed out in a recent interview), but Bourne has become his Bond role. He can’t shake it any more than Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan can separate their careers from 007.

Something about Damon’s tight-lipped stoicism fits this amnesiac character. Handicapped by the inability to remember who he is or what kind of danger he’s courting, Bourne spends much of his time trying to reassemble his identity from clues and patterns and vaguely recalled events that he hopes will reveal enough to dodge disaster.

The actor has played assassins before, but Mr. Ripley was never this edgy or vulnerable. Neither were Damon’s CIA agent in “The Good Shepherd” nor his police-department mole in last year’s Oscar-winning best picture, “The Departed.” Missing important parts of his memory, Bourne is almost always aware that he can’t see the whole picture, and that makes him a natural for gaining audience sympathy.

Damon’s third Bourne movie, “The Bourne Ultimatum,” may be the one “threequel” that adults have been waiting for this summer. It’s an undeniably exciting thriller, even if excitement sometimes seems to be all it has to offer.

Directed by Paul Greengrass, who was Oscar-nominated earlier this year for his 9/11 classic, “United 93,” it picks up where the last installment, “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004) left off, with Bourne matching wits with a tough CIA administrator (Joan Allen) who wants to “bring him in” — whatever that might mean at the moment.

New to the cast are David Strathairn and Scott Glenn as trigger-happy CIA officials, Paddy Considine as a British journalist, and Albert Finney as a mystery man who claims to have been “there at the beginning.” Allen’s character has shifted — originally suspicious of Bourne, she now wants to keep him alive — but Strathairn and Glenn are determined to terminate him.

When these pigheaded power-mongers say things like “Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” you know they’re really hoping for the worst, just so they can run amok and demonstrate their contempt for legal procedure. “Saving American lives” becomes a mantra-like justification for all sorts of mayhem. “It ends when we’ve won,” says Strathairn, summing up his character’s one-note treachery.

The script by Tony Gilroy, who worked on the previous “Bourne” movies, once more makes links with current events. In the “Bourne” view, the CIA is run by backstabbing incompetents and murderers, although a few good apples try to undermine their bad decisions.

Greengrass, who also directed “Supremacy,” seems less interested in exploring the characters than he is in creating a series of spectacular action sequences. There’s an especially furious, well-staged fight between Bourne and a hitman who’s been sent after him and another CIA employee (Julia Stiles), and the movie opens with a chase sequence that starts the adrenaline pumping.

Although Greengrass is a master at using a mobile camera and elliptical editing to create a sense of urgency, he overdoes the use of music to heighten tension. He also doesn’t ask Strathairn or Glenn to provide anything beyond standard-issue villainy; he wastes Considine in a role anyone could have played.

Doug Liman, who directed Damon’s first Bourne movie, “The Bourne Identity” (2002), seemed more concerned about relationships, though that may be due partly to the character-driven nature of the first installment in the series, which was built around the growing trust between Bourne and his lover, Marie (Franka Potente).

She was killed off in “Supremacy,” leaving Bourne (in Damon’s words) to wander through the rest of the series as “a serial monogamist who’s in love with his dead girlfriend and can’t stop thinking about her.”

Still, Damon makes Bourne a much more mysterious and intriguing creature than Richard Chamberlain did when he starred in Roger Young’s three-hour 1988 TV movie based on the late Robert Ludlum’s first Bourne book, “The Bourne Identity” (published in 1980).

Hampered by a clunky visual style, bland performances and television conventions (the blank spots for commercial breaks are glaringly obvious), it nevertheless succeeded in capturing Ludlum’s theme — a throwback to Hollywood’s paranoid Watergate-era political thrillers.

Like Robert Redford in “Three Days of the Condor” (1975) and Warren Beatty in “The Parallax View” (1974), Bourne is out there on his own, trying to avoid getting whacked by people who have more resources than he can muster.

There’s also a resemblance to Jack Nicholson’s unhappy television reporter in “The Passenger” (1975), who fakes his own death and takes over the identity of a gun-runner. Like Bourne, he’s dependent on clues that ultimately lead to lethal trouble when he has difficulty putting the puzzle together.

While Ludlum may have been inspired by these characters to create Bourne, he had far more success than Hollywood did with turning their dilemmas into a franchise. Of the mid-1970s films that seem most Bourne-like, only “Three Days of the Condor” was a commercial success.

The writer’s first three Bourne books, published in 1980, 1986 and 1990, were all best-sellers. So were “The Bourne Legacy” and “The Bourne Betrayal,” which were created after Ludlum’s death six years ago. His friend, Eric Van Lustbader, wrote them, with the blessings of Ludlum’s estate.

Ludlum died before he could see the books transformed into box-office hits. “Identity” grossed $214 million worldwide, “Supremacy” $288 million, while “Ultimatum” is expected to top that — and prompt another sequel. The ads for the new film include a nudge to “read the new novel ‘The Bourne Betrayal,’ on sale now.”