'The Bourne Ultimatum' Chases Its Tiresome Tale

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 3, 2007

Is it:


Or possibly:


Or, last:


I give up. No medium as thin as language can capture the snare-drum riffs that propel "The Bourne Ultimatum" along faster than the speed of sound, light and thought. It's not a movie; it's a trip through a gun barrel at the head of a cloud of exploding gas, and you end up splattered against a wall, then sliding into the dust with the sound of the drums ringing in your head for hours.

Good? Who could tell? It's like watching french fries crackle in a spew of hot bubbles in the back of a Mickey D's. Do the actors act? Again, you got me. Does it make sense? Ask the scriptwriters; they'd probably have a good idea. Does it give you a headache? Hmm, about the size of beautiful downtown Rockville.

The third in the series of films derived from novels by the late Robert Ludlum, it stars Matt Damon and is the second to be directed by Paul Greengrass, the brilliant Brit who like everybody affiliated with the project is much too good for it. Other luminaries whose careers will be tarnished by this express train without destination include Damon himself (grown grave and tragic in his mid-30s), Julia Stiles, Joan Allen, David Strathairn and Scott Glenn, whose face looks like the Grand Canyon from 40,000 feet. All of these people have immense amounts of talent, and they all walk around with their secret-agent faces on, scowling and saying things like "People, we have a national security alert here, now, dammit; let's get cracking!" Try to say that three times fast with your jaw clenched like a fist and see if you don't fall to the floor laughing.

Greengrass, God help us, has a style, brilliantly deployed in his documentary-style re-creations such as "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93," but it's sorely overused here, never settling down to give us poor protoplasm sacks a chance to rest. He doesn't want us to catch our breath, which his why his SteadyMount camera guy (now there's a boy who earned his paycheck!) dances around his subjects as if he's the third member of a two-man conspiracy, always close enough to hear the muttering, likely as not to get knocked flat in a fight, completely out of breath in the movie's too many chase sequences.

The plot seems to be: Jason Bourne, who two movies ago awoke with no memory while floating face-down in the sea but with a great number of alarming, unexplained skills (he can start any motor vehicle with his fingernails and flip any 10th-dan black belt into the balcony), is closing in on the puppet masters who vacuumed his brain and turned him into an assassin automaton. (Clearly, I have failed in my attempt to convince the American people that "amnesiac superagents" should be banned from the movies.)

In any event, after the movie's dim opening (to connect it to the last one, which ended in a car chase in Moscow), Bourne is headed to England to link up with a British reporter who has knowledge of the black op that programmed Jason, while the agency is politicized (Allen is the liberal exec, Strathairn the conservative) by the crisis and tries to either kill him (the con position) or bring him in (the lib).

At this point, the movie deploys a modus operandi that it will cling to throughout. It devolves essentially into three behaviors: The first is downloading. Oh, say, it's really interesting to watch the bytes trickle down the computer screen while the newly accessed data drizzle in and we learn (if we're bothering to pay attention) who the players are, what their relationships are, what team they play for and whether they bat "L" and throw "R" or the other way around.

The second is the Multitask Chase. Greengrass isn't content to have A chase B. Instead, he has A chase B while fleeing C, as B, meanwhile, chases D to kill her. Clearly A (Bourne) is the key figure because he's got to keep moving toward B while evading C but never forgetting to care for D, which is like trying to figure a trig problem in your head in the prison shower with the Noble Pagans MC. It's pretty silly, particularly when Bourne chases a Moroccan hitman who chases Stiles while the Moroccan police chase all of them.

The last key component of "The Bourne Ultimatum" (no ultimatum is ever issued or even mentioned, by the way) can only be called the John Frankenheimer Ultimatum. This is a scenario repeated seemingly ad infinitum, just as the great director did back in the "Playhouse 90" control room in the days of live TV. As it plays out in "Bourne," the senior exec takes command of a roomful of techies at monitors and it's so razzle-dazzle that we forget we are watching people in a room, talking. "Sir, he's moved to 11th --" "Go to green, Number 7!" "Sir, on Ninth he's picked up a cellphone and -- there's the TARGET, TARGET ACQUIRED!" "Prepare to vector." "Roger that, vectoring commenced." "Vector, vector -- " "He's de-vectored the vector." "Wilson, I told you to stay on the vector." "Sorry, sir." "Sir, Scotland Yard is arriving down 13th Street," and on and on it goes, achieving a surrealistic delirium as everyone tries to out-wonk-voice the other.

For a while the movie plays its games in various sordid European locales, but eventually it moves to New York, figuring if it can make it there, it can make it anywhere.

Frenetic to the point of crazy while achieving a mark that barely exceeds the mediocre, "The Bourne Ultimatum" does have a few nice touches. It has a car chase (multitasked, of course) with real cars, where the stunt guys do some tremendous real-time, real-space crashing on the actual streets of New York. Then there's the climax of that 3-hour 17-minute Moroccan quadruple relay race, where Bourne and the hitman end up trying to beat the Jockeys off each other, which, in Greengrass's rendering, is immensely physical, an epic of strength on strength and pain threshold on pain threshold. It could be edited into "300" and nobody would notice.

But I reached my pain threshold halfway through the opening credits, so the rest was pure hell.

The Bourne Ultimatum (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence and intense action.

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