Let’s face it: James Bond is dead. With all respect to Daniel Craig, Sean Connery, and the other Bonds, that franchise is as stiff as one of the late author Ian Fleming’s double martinis. 007 neither shakes nor stirs us. We’ll admit, Monty Norman and John Barry’s original Bond music still gets our blood up, but only in the nostalgic sense — the thrill is gone out of the Aston Martin DB5, M, Q Branch gadgets, Jaws and Oddjob, Miss Moneypenny, Pussy Galore and her sisters, and the other accoutrements of the too suave, too cool, too 20th-century spy. These days, sadly, even the lowliest technician has a license to kill. And amnesia — or is it unaccountability? — is the new common cold. We need an action hero to fit the times. Someone confused. Jason Bourne.
The prolific thriller author Robert Ludlum (1927-2001) wrote his three Bourne novels between 1980 and 1990 while the Cold War was still on, but all three movie versions — The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), and the brand-new The Bourne Ultimatum — reflect a type of character that almost anyone in the post-9/11, high-tech, terrorism-obsessed world can relate to. Bourne (Matt Damon), an American black-ops “rogue asset” whom we first glimpsed floating unconscious in the Mediterranean, has been deceived, abused, and discarded. He’s the requisite highly trained human killing machine, yet what’s left of his mind is bothered by memories, hazy recollections of his past life unsuccessfully erased by his masters. And he’s determined to find out who he really is and who reduced him to his present state, and to make them pay.
Bourne isn’t the first fictional spy to suffer an identity crisis, of course, but Damon, one of America’s finest screen actors, brings his whole remarkable career to the role and makes Bourne the most sympathetic lone-wolf avenger in years. The boyish-faced killer, who never wears a tux or frequents casinos, struggles to make even the smallest of interpersonal connections aside from breaking people’s necks. Hunted by his handlers and pursued by police everywhere he goes, Bourne desperately strains to overcome his lethal instincts and to find someone he can trust. All this happens at top speed through a string of picturesque European and Middle East locations — the Bourne movies are the prime example of travelogue-with-mayhem. The people he meets mostly disappoint him.
The Bourne Ultimatum is directed by Bourne Supremacy helmer Paul Greengrass, who also made one of 2006’s best movies, the docudrama United 93 — shunned by audiences but acclaimed for its uncompromising, unadorned confrontation with real-life terror. Bourne’s adventures have much of the same handheld-camera jittery feel, even though the procedural stuff is rather standard-brand. The CIA brass, intent on covering up their earlier misdeeds, form a coven of deceitful bureaucrats: David Strathairn, Albert Finney, Scott Glenn, Colin Stinton, and Joan Allen, reprising her role as Pamela Landy. She and fellow Langley spook Nicky Parsons (well played by Julia Stiles), two women agents, are the only two sympathetic characters Bourne interacts with as the action hurtles from Moscow to Turin to Paris to London to Madrid to Tangier to New York. Naturally there’s no time for sex.
Key to the appeal of the Bourne franchise, aside from Damon’s characterization and the superb location work, are the stunts and fights. The scenes in Tangier are especially exciting. Bourne, chased over rooftops above that hillside city’s labyrinthine Medina, leaps across the narrow streets into other people’s apartments and thrillingly subdues his opposite number Desh (Joey Ansah) in a long, exhausting fight in somebody’s bathroom. The building-to-building chase compares very favorably to Daniel Craig and Sébastien Foucan’s parkour scene in Casino Royale. That sequence, amazing as it was, required us to suspend our disbelief because the jumps seemed impossible. Bourne’s stunts, on the other hand, look completely real, as do the bruises. Kudos to cinematographer Oliver Wood, editor Christopher Rouse, stunt coordinator Dan Bradley, and fight choreographer Jeff Imada. Throughout the film the CIA goons stalk their prey in crowded city streets with little concern for collateral damage to the public. The next time you read a news report about a reporter shot in London’s Waterloo Station or a car bombing in Morocco, you should bear that in mind — state-sponsored terrorism is just as destructive as the rogue variety.
The English-born Greengrass is the perfect filmmaker for the Bourne series because he understands the context. His Irish political docudramas Bloody Sunday (writer and director) and Omagh (co-writer) gave us detailed portraits of violent expediency, and United 93 is one of the few 9/11 films that can withstand close examination. One of his next projects is Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a portrait of the American occupation of Baghdad, also starring Damon. We’re already in line for that one. And then there’s the matter of Bourne. Ludlum wrote only so many scenarios for his character, but that didn’t stop 007 and it won’t faze the other JB, either. Bourne, baby, Bourne.