When Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity struck gold in the summer of 2002, Paul Greengrass was an ex-BBC documentarian trying to wedge a tootsie through Hollywood’s front door. Five years on, the gifted Liman appears more comfortable as executive producer (The O.C.) than ascendant auteur, while critical darling Greengrass stewards the Bourne franchise to rising heights of reviewer fellatio. How did the thinking man’s blockbuster get here?
The Bourne Ultimatum is a tad more watchable than 2004’s Bourne Supremacy, perhaps because Greengrass’s fidgety style has cooled slightly in the interim (during which he directed last year’s necessarily more somber United 93). In Ultimatum, the titular CIA assassin (Matt Damon) continues to dodge his fellow spooks in pursuit of his true identity. David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, and Albert Finney join the returning Joan Allen as Bourne’s Langley furies, but the result is more of the same: Bruckheimer-Bay gunplay with prestige acting.
Greengrass’s antsy camera and rapid cuts — lauded variously as “documentary-like,” “realistic,” and most depressing of all, “naturalistic” — resemble delirium tremens as much as CNN. Not to get all André Bazin on his ass, but since when is editing a film to within an inch of its life considered the summit of mimesis?
The spy genre is hardly over — as Syriana, Casino Royale, TV’s Alias, or Liman’s original Bourne attest. But the outdated fantasy peddled here of an omniscient — or even competent — CIA is undermined completely by the real world intelligence blunders depicted in United 93. Greengrass peppers this installment with facile War on Terror commentary, but for all his alleged fidelity to history Ultimatum is about as realistic as Bush’s surge.