Maybe it was the casting of Franka Potente in The Bourne Identity (and, briefly, in its equally competent sequel The Bourne Supremacy) that got me thinking that the Bourne films are simply Run Lola Run overloaded with an exposition-heavy plot involving amnesia, corrupt government spooks and international globetrotting.
Replacing Lola, of course, is Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), a super-spy trained to kill, trapped in a world he never made, and desperate to discover the secrets of his forgotten past. What made Run Lola Run special was its understanding that genre requirements for this sort of movie are so arbitrary and even ridiculous that it became the film’s running joke. The movie was not about the mysteries and unpredictability of life; it was in effect saying that the allure of action pictures is simply watching a tough and determined hero or heroine, with single-minded purpose, racing so magnificently you want to pin an Olympic medal on them.
So The Bourne Ultimatum is the third incarnation of Run Bourne Run. It works best during its pedal-to-the-metal car chases, which are virtuoso musical numbers of screeching tires and vehicles that, while scraping their way over roadblocks, walls and staircases, get so banged out of shape they resemble accordions. There’s an extended sequence with Bourne leaping over the rooftops of Tangiers and jumping through picture windows to get from his Point A, with cops hot on his tail, to Point B, where his rogue C.I.A. analyst companion (Julia Stiles) is evading a professional assassin by nimbly ducking behind one conveniently located door after another. Director Paul Greengrass employs a jerky handheld camera, popping in with random zooms to convey a sense of omnipresent surveillance and you-are-there gritty immediacy.
Then there are the extended sequences with Bourne’s pursuers, invariably svelte, good looking super spies in designer clothes with top of the line sniper rifles, silencers, and Blackberries. They’re controlled by middle management types in white shirts and ties, middle aged and exhausted—Chris Cooper and Brian Cox brought world-weary gravitas to these guys in the earlier films, shuffling into the office drinking paper cups of coffee and glumly recognizing they have to do battle with Mr. Bourne, who proves as invincible as Superman in his ability to leap from tall buildings with a single bound and emerge only slightly winded but no worse for wear. This time, David Strathairn is the head heavy, who has been so stressed out by his high pressure job that when he sits in his fancy restaurant for a lunch meeting he primly orders the “heart healthy omelet”, and mostly wanders around the control room saying, “Take him out!” and, upon failing to kill Bourne yet again, “Aw, God damn it…”
Things settle down during a handful of soul-searching moments where Damon sits on the edge of a bed or in a lonely coffee shop, usually opposite a sympathetic female cohort, and a flicker of doubt or melancholy creeps over him. “I see the faces of all of the people I’ve killed,” he intones, solemnly. Damon remains locked in the continual struggle of being a handsome, boyish leading man who wants to be taken seriously as an actor, elevating the generic spy thriller to an existential morality play. While he’s certainly game, and the Bourne movies have achieved some respectability (they may be popcorn movies, but they’re well crafted), he can’t quite reach the operatic heights of, say, Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer in the final confrontation of Blade Runner, where macho guys achieve a kind of grace and poetry in their self-awareness.
What may disappoint viewers is that all of this is familiar stuff if you’ve already seen the previous films. The technology of spyware may have slightly improved, so thugs have digital cameras attached to their Glock pistols, but there’s very little that’s fresh and new. There are even retreads of entire scenes and sequences, such as Bourne being able to telephone the C.I.A. and frighten them by saying he can see every move they’re making (not difficult considering their top secret spy organization has gigantic full wall windows overlooking New York City) and a close-quarters fight scene that moves from living room to bathroom to shower stall—I could swear he had the exact same combat with Marton Csokas in Bourne Supremacy.
The Bourne series had the advantage of being a tough, scrappy, less glamorous alternative to the debonair James Bond series. With Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass, it was surpassing what Cruise has set out to do with his ultra-slick Mission: Impossible series, which is to use the same template, but bring in unique directors. At the time, Greengrass had something to prove; and now after being lauded for United 93 it feels like returning to the Bourne series is a hefty paycheck and a promise to recreate what he did right in the first place.
Granted, anyone interested in checking out this latest entry will want some more of the same, but even the Harry Potter series has been able to find ways of breathing fresh life into its formulaic trappings through the strength of its great cast of character actors and imaginative directors. The hook they’re trying this time is that Bourne finally figures out, once and for all, who he is and where he comes from. If you want the answers, step right up. But do we really want to know? The element of mystery is what makes some people attractive, and as long as Bourne is on his identity quest, he will remain entertaining. After all, the answers to these kinds of thriller puzzles are rarely as interesting as watching Lola or Bourne run.
Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.