When was the last time Matt Damon smiled? He glowered his way through The Departed, looked anxious in Ocean’s Thirteen, and seemed bored every second of The Good Shepherd when he wasn’t in drag singing "Little Miss Buttercup." Mostly, though, he’s chosen roles that allow him to be bare-knuckled and blank–an action movie mannequin with fewer lines and facial expressions than Steven Seagal. As Jason Bourne, he’s in bland bloom as the amnesiatic killer who wants one thing: to avenge himself on his handlers, whoever they are. He’s still beset by flashbacks–this time of a lab where he was hooded and tortured–yet he whizzes through London, Moscow, Madrid, Tangier and New York racking up devastation with the emotional complexity of a pinball. A few times he points a revolver, but refuses to kill. We’re supposed to feel tense empathy, but he’s been pulling that move since Franka Potente was renting scooters in the Greek Isles.
But for all the feigned soul searching, The Bourne Ultimatum knows what we really want is speed, evasion, and the latest in special ops tactics. It’s good on all three. The flick picks up quick with Bourne’s flight out of Moscow, then zips to England where a Guardian reporter named Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) has published three pieces on Bourne and Marie. Ross is on to something big–his source has just tipped him off to a secret CIA project that might be the key to Bourne’s identity, but as soon as he says the words "Black Briar" on the phone to his editor, the NSA is on his tail. And Bourne, hunting down what Ross knows, is on a collision course to meet them.
Between Bournes, British director Paul Greengrass shot the 9/11 docudrama United 93, which was hushed and apolitical. He seems to have channeled every frustration he repressed into this multiplex thriller. There’s waterboarding, Arabs with car bombs, security cameras everywhere, and wiretapping up the wazoo. Most of all, there’s Agent Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), a shady leader in Dick Cheney spectacles who tries to convince everyone that Bourne is a threat to the American way of life and delights in "experimental interrogation." "No more red tape!" he exults to Agent Pamela Landy (Joan Allen, hair smaller than last time). And lest we doubt that these things are true, the team of screenwriters has devoted many lines of dialogue to avowing they are. "This is real," grunts Damon, and later, "You couldn’t make this stuff up."
But just as Bourne has his signature moves–surprising people in their apartments, using his snub-nosed Archie comics face to pass off as every nationality from Scottish to Estonian, and refusing to put on a football jersey when his enemies have spent three films scouring security footage for a man dressed all in black–Greengrass’ tic is zoomed-in, shaky footage that feels like he forced his cameramen to balance on one foot. Which is all very well when you’re trying to give immediacy to a crowd chase sequence, but rotten when the audience wants to see a spectacular stunt. Bourne races motorbikes up staircases and leaps across balconies like a mountain goat, but all I could see was fuzz and chaos. Halfway through, the plot stands still for a 10-minute pursuit through Tangier that might have had some badass fight choreography, but I suspect that with his style of filming and editing, he could turn Jackie Chan folding his laundry into Rush Hour 4. These irritating sequences don’t look like a movie, but a YouTube stunt Damon shot with Ben Affleck for giggles.
At the end, however, Greengrass scores points by asking the series’ ultimate question. Not who were Bourne’s bosses, but why did Midwestern boy David Webb sign up with them to become a hitman? "I love my country," Bourne says in a flashback before his bosses force him to shoot a prisoner in a black hood. And so Greengrass comes full circle from the War on Terror film that bit its tongue to the popcorn flick that speaks volumes.