Who is Jason Bourne?
Well, no problems if you have forgotten, as he has too, and his third outing, The Bourne Ultimatum, provides plenty of flashbacks and expositional sequences to remind us what happened to him in the previous two.
Freely adapted and updated from the Cold War spy novels of Robert Ludlum, The Bourne films are espionage thrillers built around Bourne's seemingly endless quest to find out who he really is - ever since he was found floating in the Mediterranean, unconscious and amnesiac, with two bullets in his back, a stash of money and fake IDs in the bank, and a posse of professional killers on his tail.
The easy answer to the mystery, as the new film's poster campaign so boldly declares, is that "Matt Damon is Jason Bourne" - and sure enough, the actor's trademark blandness makes him curiously well-suited to play this empty shell of a character. More importantly, though, as we had already learnt by the end of his very first adventure The Bourne Identity (2002), Bourne is a one-time crack assassin for a covert CIA 'black ops' unit named Treadstone that takes out America's perceived enemies with extreme prejudice - and Treadstone does not take kindly to having one of its own at large. By the end of The Bourne Supremacy (2004), Bourne had brought down Treadstone in vengeance for the murder of his lover Marie, and had begun clawing his way back towards something like redemption for the sins of his past.
Now, in The Bourne Ultimatum, it is the same old story with different names. Treadstone has reconstituted itself under the new umbrella label Blackbriar, Bourne faces new double-crossing CIA opponents Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) and Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney), and in the end, in an arbitrary nod to the franchise's preoccupation with lost identity, Bourne learns his own real name, as well as how he became Bourne, and (more ambiguously) whether he dived into it or was pushed.
In a sense, though, none of this matters; for the true subject of The Bourne Ultimatum is not Bourne's identity, but America's. Concerned as it is with intrusive surveillance, enforced censorship, water-boarding and other techniques of coercion, extra-judicial killings, covert operations abroad, collateral damage, stop-at-nothing deniability, and 'patriotic' conspiracy, the film is set squarely in the post-9/11 world, and Bourne's struggle to understand how he came to be murdering so many strangers abroad, and his driving desire to return home at last, mirror the thoughts of many US soldiers and citizens who have come to doubt the wisdom of the Bush administration's so-called War on Terror. In his previous film United 93 (2006), Paul Greengrass remained resolutely apolitical on the most politically charged of true-life issues - but Bourne's spy-versus-spy fictions offer the director a fantasy space where ideologies can play more freely.
Really, The Bourne Ultimatum ought to have little going for it. Its protagonist is a non-entity whose inner conflicts rarely engage, its villains are instantly recognisable and devoid of all nuance, its plot is far more straightforward than it wants to be, and there is little in its story arc that has not already been covered by the previous two films. Yet there are three reasons that it will keep you riveted to your seat for its near two-hour duration, and they are cinematographer Oliver Wood, editor Christopher Rouse and director Greengrass, who have shot everything so close, and cut everything so fast, that it is well nigh impossible to avoid getting caught up in the frantic immediacy of it all.
On paper, a cat-and-mouse dash through the Medina of Tangiers might sound like mere exotic filler, but in this trio's hands it is imbued with a sweaty, claustrophobic tension that makes it the high point of the film. Similarly a car chase, that most cliched staple of the spy thriller, is here rendered in such punishingly destructive detail that its only cinematic precedent is the similar sequence in The Bourne Supremacy, which was of course shot by the same team.
Who is Jason Bourne? Who cares? Forget identity, and watch The Bourne Ultimatum just for its technical accomplishments. That way, you won't leave the cinema feeling slightly betrayed.