Written in the 1980s, during the last flush of CIA paranoia, Robert Ludlum’s thrillers attempt to investigate the onion-like layers of super agent Jason Bourne, played onscreen by the mull-faced Matt Damon, which makes the examination a bit like ascribing subtle flavor levels to an animal cracker. But the truly emblematic character in these films is Julia Stiles, who has even less range than Damon, though yards more charisma. If you remember correctly, Stiles appeared in the first film in a role that seemed almost tacked on; like a snippet of DVD commentary with a physical presence. And though she has improved slightly and the plot has become a bit more textured, the rest of The Bourne Ultimatum is a mess.
In this installment, fits of turbulent brilliance get lost in two-second cuts and hand-held camera jitters; meanwhile, Damon and Stiles are actually trumped by the cliche-spouting Joan Allen and David Strathairn. Strathairn-nowadays always cast as a prig evildoer-gets the dumbest lines to deliver. “Does Bourne want to be detected?” he asks good CIA agent Allen rhetorically. “I don’t think so!” he says with all the theatrical grace of Don Knotts. Allen is only a little better, helped a bit by her slow burn and lean hand-wringing.
After all this, I’ll admit the film is still enjoyable. Not entirely ruined by frenetic style or dumb dialogue, it rattles along with a whoosh of action, mostly fights and chases-the true stars of any spy feature. But the film’s nervous energy offers anxiety and explosions rather than a sense of evil coiling toward a brilliant recognition. It’s too much style, as if the director did not trust the material and wanted to hide a lot of loose ends in bursts of cool camera tricks. Lest you suppose this franchise has
become seriously serious, consider one final fact. When the end comes, Bourne learns about his shaded past and we learn about his destiny. As Maggie Simpson would say, “Sequel!”