Bourne to thrill

Matt Damon shines in an intelligent, pacy action film with a conscience

<strong>The Bourne Ultimat

If at any point during The Bourne Ultimatum you find the pace slackening, and your heartbeat returning to normal, there's a simple explanation: the film is actually over, you're sitting in the restaurant afterwards and the waiter is telling you that today's soup is parsnip. Until that moment, it's safe to say the picture permits you no respite.

After The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004), this is the third film about the exploits of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), who has little memory of his time as an assassin for the CIA, but has deduced from the way his erstwhile employers keep shooting at him that a reference is out of the question. One of his few allies at the agency is Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), who doesn't agree with the office policy of bumping people off willy-nilly. "You start down this path and where does it end?" she asks her superior, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), who gives a response that George W Bush's speechwriters would do well to match: "It ends when we've won."

When The Bourne Ultimatum began, I realised that, much like Jason Bourne, I had lost all memory of what happened three years ago. (There, sadly, the similarity ends.) But it scarcely matters: all you need to know is that Bourne is being chased. Occasionally, for variety's sake, he chases someone else. And British viewers will enjoy some intrigue set at the Guardian newspaper; I don't want to give too much away, but it doesn't concern the crossword. Mostly the film thrives on scenes of Bourne running, jumping and driving without due regard for speed cameras, interspersed with blurry flashbacks to his CIA training. It transpires he was half-drowned and beaten up there by Albert Finney, of all people, before being forced to watch Finney's song-and-dance numbers from Annie, which is brutal even for the CIA.

Like its predecessors, The Bourne Ultimatum is a mix of breathless action and gritty modern-day espionage (updated from the Cold War setting of Robert Ludlum's original novels). If it feels like a non-stop demolition derby, at least there's a responsible driver at the wheel. The British director Paul Greengrass (United 93) makes everything seem more plausible with twitchy camerawork and even twitchier editing. This moves things along so quickly that you don't have time to ask how Bourne can elude his pursuers without resorting to so much as a blonde wig or a Groucho Marx moustache.

Bourne's ability to emerge from the severest car wreck with scarcely more than a mild shaving nick would make him the envy of any crash-test dummy - which should not, incidentally, be interpreted as a reference to Matt Damon's minimalist acting technique. The makers of Team America: World Police were way off the mark when they portrayed the actor as a lobotomised pretty-boy. He can do blank, which is why he's been drawn to undercover roles before, in The Talented Mr Ripley, The Departed and The Good Shepherd. But he's no dunce - you can tell there's something ticking away behind that expressionless face. In that sense, Damon is like a walking metaphor for the Bourne films, which use the outwardly dumb action genre to make an intelligent commentary on how governments cultivate their own enemies.

What distinguishes The Bourne Ultimatum from old-school, shoot-'em-up action films is that Greengrass directs with a conscience; the film may get us all hopped up on violence, but considerable care is taken to address its aftermath. Take the heart-pounding pursuit through Waterloo Station, during which one innocent person is killed, a second is apprehended for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a crowded bus is invaded by trigger-happy cops: good luck watching that sequence without thinking of Jean Charles de Menezes. Jason Bourne may fight like the Tasmanian Devil, flying fists and feet emerging from within a blurry cyclone, but any escapism in The Bourne Ultimatum is purely illusory. The film is a true original - a globetrotting fantasy with its feet firmly on the ground.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time