Swift action and intrigue in franchise's latest

2008-10-02 08:05

THE Bourne franchise has not only resurrected Matt Damon's career, but redefined him as an actor. His aw-shucks persona has been elbowed aside to be replaced by a flinty, self-absorbed look, which is entirely appropriate for the über-assassin Jason Bourne who is the subject of this trilogy, loosely based on Robert Ludlum's work.

The Bourne Identity was the first in the series, in which the hero, or anti-hero (we didn't know which) starts to realise that the killing machine he knows himself to be is not who he suspects he might once have been. And so starts the hunt not just for his identity, but for his handlers who placed him in this existential predicament and then exploited it for a purpose that nominally relates to American national security but in reality is less clear.

With all the groundwork done in parts one and two, part three hits the ground running, with Bourne on the run, both away from his pursuers and towards his tormentors. The villains are clear and known, operating under the mantle of the CIA, with the only vague question being how much official sanction they command. In practice the answer is irrelevant, because they operate a global spying network that controls renditions, torture and assassination with ruthless ease and impunity. In one scene, an innocent hoodie in London is jabbed with a syringe and whisked off in a van on the mere suspicion of being a journalist's source. In this underworld Big Brother is ubiquitous, immanent and malevolent.

The action is swift, hardly pausing for explanation or rumination. But oddly, there's a reluctance to get to the climax. The first two in the series fed off intrigue and ambivalence. Ultimatum knows it will have to deliver Jason Bourne from evil and make him whole again. But while the entire plot, and the audience too, strains towards this end, its achievement will snap the tension that has held the entire web together. The climax, when it comes, is hardly unsatisfying, but together with the sweet thrill of resolution comes deflation as the inevitable that has been evident from the start comes to pass, give or take a few details. But there is hope; the door is left open to part four: Beyond Bourne. ****

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