Our feature film last night was The Bourne Ultimatum, third and last in the original cycle of films from the 2000’s based (more or less) on Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne novels — at least the three he wrote personally before he died and his estate and his publishers hired another writer named Eric von Lustbader to write at least eight more books about the character. (This is the modern age in which they don’t let popular characters die just because their creators have; I was particularly incensed when I heard of the publication of a new Hercule Poirot book because Agatha Christie had been very insistent that the characters die with her; in the 1950’s she wrote Curtain and Sleeping Murder, in which she killed off her two most popular sleuth characters — Poirot and Miss Marple, respectively — and arranged that these books would not be published until after her own death and they would mark the ends of both characters.) Jason Bourne has had an odd cinematic history; in 1988 the first book in the cycle, The Bourne Identity, was filmed as a TV-movie with Richard Chamberlain as Bourne and Jaclyn Smith from Charlie’s Angels as the female lead — an economics professor who hooks up with Bourne and ends up in love with him — in a version that apparently came closer to its source novel than any of the films with Matt Damon in the role. In the early 2000’s director Doug Liman contacted Ludlum and arranged for the rights to remake The Bourne Identity, and he set up the film at Universal and cast Damon in the lead and a quite good German actress named Franka Potente as his girlfriend, who in this version wasn’t an economics professor but a “gypsy” touring Europe as a sort of neo-hippie — only Liman had a lot of battles with Universal during the shoot and ended up being removed from the sequelae and replaced by Paul Greengrass.
The second film in the sequence, The Bourne Supremacy, came out in 2004, two years after the Liman/Damon version of The Bourne Identity, and instead of the real-life terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” whom Ludlum had used as his principal villain (but whom the filmmakers couldn’t use because he’d been captured in real life between the publication of Ludlum’s novels and the films), Bourne’s main adversaries in the movies are within the CIA, for which he nominally worked. It seems that Bourne — or, to use his birth name, David Webb — was recruited for an off-the-books CIA program called “Treadstone” which would train people to become free-lance assassins, basically killing on command anyone the CIA bigwigs in charge of the program wanted out of the way for any reason at all. By the end of the second film, The Bourne Supremacy, the CIA has formally abolished “Treadstone” but in fact has merely replaced it with “Blackbriar,” which does the same thing only it works in association with the National Security Agency (NSA), whose unparalleled capability for putting the entire world under surveillance allows it to identify the targets which the CIA will then use the Blackbriar nèe Treadstone assassins to eliminate. At one point the CIA official in charge of Blackbriar, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), explains to his subordinate, Pam Landy (Joan Allen, whose authoritative performance in The Bourne Supremacy stood out and is even better here, mainly because this time around the character is drawn more multidimensionally and given a crisis of conscience) that Blackbriar is “the umbrella program for all our black-ops. Full envelope intrusion, rendition, experimental interrogation — it is all run out of this office.” (The use of the term “rendition” — meaning kidnapping people and taking them to countries where they can legally be tortured — suggested an interesting possibility for a Bourne storyline: he’s “rendered” to Saudi Arabia or Pakistan and has to figure out how to escape and outwit his torturers before they either break him or kill him.) I liked The Bourne Ultimatum best of the three movies in the “Bourne Trilogy” boxed set because it was the most uncompromising politically; instead of a rogue operation being conducted by a few agents without the knowledge of the CIA’s upper echelons, this film depicts the CIA’s director, Tom Cronin (Tom Gallup), as fully aware and on board with Blackbriar and its mission, which is to eliminate anyone the CIA feels is a threat to itself or its mission without any of that messy “due process” stuff about arresting and trying people in civilian or military courts.
What’s most chilling about the first half-hour of The Bourne Ultimatum is not only the sheer off-handedness with which the CIA officials in charge of Blackbriar pronounce death sentences on anyone who gets in their way — including Simon Ross (Paddy Considine, who for my money is hotter than Matt Damon!), a reporter for the Guardian who’s writing stories about Treadstone and has a secret source within the CIA, Neal Daniels (Colin Stinton), who gets shot and killed by Blackbriar assassin Paz (Edgar Ramirez) in the middle of Waterloo Station when he breaks Bourne’s carefully given instructions on how to stay alive — but the huge amount of surveillance infrastructure that has been created by public and private players alike, and the ability of the NSA to find and trace anyone, virtually anywhere in the world, with this technology. Though made six years before Edward Snowden’s revelations (which were published for the first time in the Guardian), the plot of The Bourne Ultimatum — worked out by Tony Gilroy, though at least two other writers (Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi) were brought in later, presumably to smooth out Gilroy’s tangled plot line and cut the number of reversals down to a tolerable level — eerily anticipates them. Another aspect of the script for The Bourne Ultimatum that anticipates later events is the off-handedness with which Blackbriar targets U.S. citizens, as well as foreigners, for extrajudicial assassination; ever since President Obama put U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki on a “hit list” in May 2010 and he was killed in a drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011, the U.S. government has proclaimed that merely being an American citizen does not immunize you from being “taken out” anywhere in the world if America’s secret government decides you’re an active participant on the other side of the “War on Terror.” (Two weeks after al-Awlaki’s death, his son was killed in another U.S. drone strike, leading to speculation that the U.S. government was out to wipe out not only al-Awlaki himself but his entire family.) In The Bourne Ultimatum we’re given so many shots of ordinary surveillance cameras in public places that we realize with a start how used to them we’ve become and how we’ve come to think of them as benign, little realizing that Big Brother is indeed watching us 24/7 and these systems can be taken over at an instant and used by an unscrupulous government literally to target people.
Of course The Bourne Ultimatum is also an action movie, full of car chases shot in Paul Greengrass’s trademark Jerkicam style (he shot the action in both The Bourne Supremacy and this film mostly with hand-held cameras so it looks like they’re literally happening before our eyes and the camerapeople themselves look as perplexed at what’s going on as we do, not like what they are — people recording a carefully contrived version of “reality” from the filmmakers’ imaginations) and plot twists that defy the laws of physics (Bourne pulling a bullet out of himself, and for the climax Bourne taking a 10-story header out of a New York building, landing in the Hudson River below and surviving) as well as inept plot holes. For one thing, the film suddenly shifts locales and Bourne seems to be able to turn up in Moscow, Berlin, Paris, London or wherever a jump-cut from Greengrass and his editor, Christopher Rouse, can take him. Apparently, despite all the precautions he has to take on land to make sure Blackbriar’s assassin de jour doesn’t pick him off, Bourne can just breeze his way onto a plane in any airport in the world and fly to any other airport in the world without so much as a peep from airport security! Charles also noted that the supposedly super-secret headquarters of Blackbriar is in a New York City office building with a window that doesn’t even have mirrored one-way glass — so Bourne can (and does) spy into the office from outside and everything going on in there is in his full view. Though movie chase scenes used special effects to defy the laws of physics well before the invention of computer-generated imagery (CGI), the advent of CGI seems not only to have made this sort of thing easier but encouraged it and led to movies like this in which you just have to set aside your knowledge of the laws of physics for two hours and let yourself be entertained by these physically impossible scenes.
There are other problems with this movie, including Matt Damon’s limited acting skills — frankly, the more Jason Bourne (t/n David Webb) finds out about who he is, what he does and why he became an automaton-like killer for the CIA (revealed in a climactic scene with his trainer, played in an old-pro performance by Albert Finney that reminded me a great deal of the Julia Roberts-Mel Gibson Conspiracy Theory, also about a man destroyed by his training as a black-ops assassin), the harder it is for Damon’s talents, such as they are, to keep pace with the character — and the virtual disappearance of female lead Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who is Pam’s immediate subordinate at the CIA but helps Bourne either as a protest against the way he’s being targeted, out of a romantic and/or sexual interest in him, or both, who looks like she’s going to be an important character in the first half of the film but virtually disappears in the second. Charles said he probably would have liked The Bourne Ultimatum better if we hadn’t watched it so soon after The Bourne Supremacy — the car chases, on-foot pursuits and shots of Bourne and anyone trying to help him literally in the cross-hairs of killers like Paz (Edgar Ramirez) — naming this character after the Spanish word for “peace” is a cheap attempt at irony — and Desh (Joey Ansah) do get repetitive, especially if you screen the movies in sequence without much of a break between them — but for creating a popular entertainment that shows the national security establishment at its absolute worst while still creating enough thrills for a mass audience, I give the makers of The Bourne Ultimatum a lot of credit. Incidentally, there have been at least two movies in the “Bourne Universe” made since this one: a film not only co-written but directed by Tony Gilroy called The Bourne Legacy (2012) which is described on imdb.com as “an expansion of the universe from Robert Ludlum’s novels, centered on a new hero whose stakes have been triggered by the events of the previous three films” said hero being “Aaron Cross” and played by Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker, and a new film from this year called simply Jason Bourne in which Matt Damon resumed the role.