When I was about 12, I watched the old Robert Redford movie Three Days of the Condor with my mom, but I couldn’t get past the premise: CIA assassins targeting one of the agency’s own researchers, who Knows More Than He Should, even if he doesn’t know that he knows. This was so silly, so unrealistic, I complained. Nodding thoughtfully, Mom explained that the movie came out in the 1970s, soon after Watergate. People were paranoid then and angry. Murderous, far-reaching conspiracies just didn’t seem that far-fetched. But I just rolled my eyes. Stupid movie.
Watching The Bourne Ultimatum this past weekend, I felt Mom’s explanation come rushing back to me. In this new movie, a black-ops arm of the CIA merrily stomps on the Constitution with complete impunity (and not a little incompetence). The agents eavesdrop indiscriminately, employ torture, and assassinate private citizens in public areas, and none of it struck me as particularly silly or unrealistic. It’s a great thriller—taut and compelling—but it made me long for the days when I could roll my eyes at such paranoid, cynical plotlines.
Matt Damon reprises his role as Jason Bourne, an amnesiac haunted by the death of his girlfriend and his murky past as a CIA-trained killing machine. Having avenged Marie’s murder in The Bourne Supremacy, he’s now determined to uncover who he was before he became an assassin-bot and who, exactly, engineered that transformation. Meanwhile, cold-blooded careerist Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), head of the top-secret assassin-bot program, Black Briar, is continuing efforts to terminate Bourne, whom he essentially considers a malfunctioning weapon. Fortunately for Bourne, he may have allies within the agency: Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), his former handler, and Pamela Landry (Joan Allen), an agent whose doesn’t share Vosen’s enthusiasm for gunning down journalists, waterboarding recalcitrant trainees, and setting off bombs on crowded streets in Tangiers.
Essentially, the movie is just one long, globe-hopping chase scene, with Bourne eluding various Black Briar operatives as he attempts to track down Black Briar headquarters. It should be dull, but it isn’t. Filmed on location in London, Madrid, Tangiers, and New York, the chase sequences each have their own rich flavor. Paul Greengrass directs those sequences with vivid, kinetic, documentary-esque flair. And the choreography of those sequences is dazzling. In my favorite, Bourne tries to guide a terrified journalist through London’s Waterloo station by tracking the countless security cameras, creating diversions, and maiming the odd Black Briar agent. Intricate, surprising, and deliciously tense, that opening set piece primes the audience for all the high-wire excitement that comes after.
But if anyone keeps Ultimatum from becoming merely a well-oiled suspense machine, it’s Damon. He gives Bourne a sort of emotional weariness that offsets his superhuman strength, endurance, and reflexes, somehow making the impossibly invincible character compellingly human. Still grieving for Marie (and how could he not?—even in fleeting flashbacks, the vibrant Franka Potente is enchanting), Bourne shows no interest in Stiles’ dour, doll-eyed Nicky, but manages to avoid becoming similarly dour. It’s fun to watch the intelligence at work behind his watchful eyes, and his splintery black sense of humor crackles whenever it surfaces.
The smug, reactionary Vosen is hardly a worthy adversary for the unflappable Bourne, but he makes a great villain. Strathairn’s sharp-edged performance is striking, but even if it weren’t, we’d still eagerly await Vosen’s undoing. We’d still long to see him struck down and humbled, this dangerous little man who wields his unearned power so recklessly.
Not that Ultimatum is a political movie. It alludes to politically charged subjects—government surveillance and torture, prisoners in black hoods—but those don’t so much convey a message as they ground the film’s world in our own. And that’s what makes me so sad. We no longer need Communists or neo-Nazis or even Giuliani’s precious Islamic terrorists to be our villains. Why outsource when America provides all the villainy we need?
I just hope that fifteen or so years from now, if I have a daughter of my own and we watch this movie together, the world will have changed enough that she will complain about how silly and unrealistic it is. I will explain that it came out during the second George W. Bush administration. People were paranoid then and angry. Murderous, far-reaching conspiracies just didn’t seem that far-fetched. But she will just roll her eyes. Stupid movie.