During a recent appearance on The Tonight Show, Matt Damon said that the strangest question he has been asked, with increasing regularity, during press junkets for THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM is, "Who do you think would win in a fight between Jason Bourne and James Bond?"
In truth, over its five-year reign, the Bourne series managed to wrest away supremacy over the spy-thriller genre and, if nothing else, finally force the keepers of the Fleming flame to reboot their franchise and rekindle 007's mojo. Having performed this cinematic service, it is fitting that Bourne rides off into the sunset with Ultimatum, its third and ostensibly final chapter.
However, the comparisons between Bourne and Bond essentially end beyond their similar vocations, literary roots and identical initials. The trilogy's leitmotif is amnesiac secret agent Jason Bourne's search for his maker and, by extension, his true identity. Far from a super spy from the swinging '60s or a muscle-bound '80s action hero, the diminutive Damon plays a laconic Man With No Name on a simultaneous search for self and vengeance against an unknown foe.
Over three films, those who forged Bourne into a blunt killing machine have seen their creation turn back toward them, and they in response have gone to any lengths necessary to stop him and mask their misdoings. In that respect, the most apt analogy is Frankenstein's monster—with Albert Finney cast here as Bourne's mind-altering godhead. The twist comes, however, when it is revealed that instead of being a conscripted victim, Bourne (aka David Webb) is a loyal foot soldier who handed over his dog tags—and his soul—to volunteer for deadly service in order to protect America, only to have his allegiance misused for nefarious purposes by power-mad minders.
As pointed an indictment of Bush's War is Ultimatum's depiction of the metastasizing of the covert Bush-era intelligence apparatus. The former CIA black-ops arm Treadstone has reinvented itself as Blackbriar (which carries echoes of Blackwater USA, the real-life N.C.-based security contractor), headed by another shadowy figure, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn). As the new "sharp end of the stick," Blackbriar has unfettered authority to employ the tools of warrantless surveillance, rendition, "extreme methods of interrogation" and kill orders. They operate in a netherworld where contract assassins are code-named "assets" and the combatants of power joust among the nameless, faceless masses. "You start down this path and where does it end?" asks agent Pamela Landy (Joan Allen, reprising her role from Supremacy). "It ends when we've won," retorts Vosen.
That themes this weighty could fit within the confines of what is essentially an extended adrenaline rush bears continuing testament to the talent of director Paul Greengrass, who can amass a mountain of import by training his handheld camera on a single sidelong glance. A gritty and taut atmosphere lingers throughout, punctuated by sensational stunt work and intricate set pieces. Greengrass and screenwriter Tony Gilroy handle plot and character development with a similarly deft touch. We learn that the final scene in Supremacy—a phone call from Bourne to Landy's New York City office—was not a mere epilogue but a flash-forward to a pivotal moment in Ultimatum, thereby chronologically and narratively interlocking the two films. And, hints at a deeper past relationship between Bourne and handler Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) remain just that—by contrast, Bond would have bedded the lass two movies ago.
If there is a criticism to be issued, it is the air of redundancy that sets in after making three films using the same formula: endless cat-and-mouse chases (as exciting as they may be) while being monitored by a situation room of government lackeys flogged by the directives of some bureaucratic overseer—try making a drinking game out of every time somebody utters a variation of "Where is he, people?!" And, the presence of Finney, Strathairn and Scott Glenn only adds to the panoply of middle-aged character actors slotted into the roles of duplicitous government officials throughout the series—give the franchise two more films and you are liable to see Michael Gambon, James Cromwell and Ian Holm.
Still, it is gratifying that the zenith of a summer movie season otherwise headlined by shape-shifting robots and an aging '80s action icon comes in the form of throwback to the espionage thrillers of the 1970s updated as compelling, exhilarating zeitgeist. The shrewdest of the films' many departures from Robert Ludlum's source novels is that Bourne's villains are not external—Chinese nationals, ex-KGB agents and the like—but come from within. It speaks to a country suffering an identity crisis, and like Bourne, redemption only comes from tearing away from the talons of jingoism on a path toward self-discovery.
The Bourne Ultimatum opens Friday throughout the Triangle.
There are more genuine laughs per each of the 87 minutes in THE SIMPSONS MOVIE than any movie you will see this summer. Still, a similar declaration can usually be made about any given Simpsons television episode, so elongating one of them to feature-film length does not by itself make a transcendent feature film.
In what feels more like a retrospective than a reimagining, Homer draws the ire of his neighbors after he pollutes Lake Springfield to the point that the federal government, led by President Schwarzenegger and his EPA head (Albert Brooks), decides to quarantine the city under a giant glass dome. After being run out of town, the Simpsons briefly relocate to Alaska before returning home to save Springfield from the threat of annihilation.
The cunning wit of creator Matt Groening and Co. remains sharp—Springfield initially tries to address the "irritating truth" about their polluted lake by erecting a security fence around it to keep out potential dumpers. But, revolving subplots about Lisa's search for puppy love, Homer and Marge's martial woes and Bart finding a father figure in the form of Ned Flanders all feel like TV leftovers spiced with a few sound and sight gags that would run afoul of the FCC back on FOX. When Homer opens the movie by chastising the audience for paying to watch something they can see on TV for free, the comment feels more incisive than ironic.
The Simpsons Movie is now playing throughout the Triangle.