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Total Recall

A homecoming for Jason Bourne

BY JASON BLAIR

THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM: Directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Tony Gilroy, Scott Burns and George Nolfi. Cinematography, Oliver Wood. Music, John Powell. Starring Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn and Albert Finney. Universal Pictures, 2007. PG-13. 111 minutes.

Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum

Jason Bourne: The name bespeaks speed and linear movement, suggesting youth but also authority. Sleek and seamless, it's the phonetic equivalent of a knife blade, which seems fitting for a man who can handle his weaponry. Bourne (Matt Damon), loosely based upon the hero of the Robert Ludlum novels, is the memory-impaired but highly lethal assassin put into play when foreign targets don't behave. Left for dead by the CIA after an attack of conscience in The Bourne Identity, he soon became their hardest target. Framed for a botched assassination in The Bourne Supremacy, he came out of hiding to teach his government a lesson, only to lose his beloved Marie (Franka Potente) to a bullet aimed at him. All he's ever wanted was his past revealed to him and, after that, to be left alone. Along the way, much to the delight of moviegoers, he's dispatched his attackers with a bored nonchalance that makes James Bond look like Woody Allen. The world needs a Jason Bourne right now, or at least the movies do. He's the Bond on the street, the perfect hero for a generation that expects — nay, demands — that heroes be accessible.

The Bourne Ultimatum is another satisfying dose of Bourne taking it to the bad guys — that is, the CIA — in places you and I will never visit. Turin, for example, or Tangier. In this installment, which I'm not inclined to believe is the finalé, Bourne's amnesia finally dissipates. He gradually remembers how he came to be Jason Bourne, government asset, which conveniently maps to his original goal of hunting down Marie's assassin. Along with Bourne, we learn a great number of things, including that Jason was "square one" in Treadstone 71, an experimental black-ops program dedicated to removing international threats. Treadstone evolved into an even more secretive program, Blackbriar, which occasionally eliminates U.S. citizens whom the government views as subversive. When a journalist for the Guardian makes the connection between Bourne and Blackbriar, it puts Bourne and the CIA on a collision course. The Blackbriar assassins are something to behold, but my money is always on Bourne.

The beauty of the Bourne films is you can depend on them to thrill you in comfortably familiar ways. Paul Greengrass (United 93), who also handled Bourne Supremacy, directs Ultimatum like a personal trainer from hell: 30 tense minutes, pause for a breath, 30 tense minutes, then pause again for air. The result is a lean and mean spy thriller format that's head and shoulders above the competition. The close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat sequences are superb, the car chases are always wickedly inventive and the technology is just far enough ahead without appearing cartoonish. In Bourne Ultimatium, much of the action takes place via video surveillance screens; it will make even the most concerned citizens paranoid all over again. The other quality of the Bourne films is they attract a first-rate list of veteran actors, such as Joan Allen and Albert Finney, both of whom re-appear here. I miss Brian Cox and Chris Cooper this time around, but I'm happy to report that both David Straitharn (Good Night and Good Luck) and Scott Glenn are on board. Strathairn is masterful as Noah Vosen, the quintessential CIA company man who shut down his conscience years ago.

You'll remember Allen as Pamela Landy, the relentless CIA boss in Bourne Supremacy. Here, we see a more complicated Landy; in contrast to her turn in Supremacy, she's now a model citizen. When she finally reaches out to Bourne, you want to believe she can still save her soul. Her gesture doesn't guarantee Bourne's safety, but it does make it harder for his enemies to hide. Unfortunately, Ultimatum relies heavily on flashbacks that feel redundant and, worse, can't hide the fact that both Damon and Finney are aging: it's clearly today's Damon and Finney in the scenes, no matter how much the light is manipulated to disguise that. Still, other than a silly motorbike escape scene, Bourne Ultimatum makes you believe that the world is in good hands.