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Bourne Again

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It wasn't even a day after I left the theater that I was asking myself and friends who would listen: "Did that happen in 'Identity,' 'Supremacy' or the new one?" Doubtless you, too, will wonder which movie had a certain ballet of hand-to-hand combat, that one car-chase explosion or the moment when Jason Bourne, the Mensa hit man, shocks the CIA team trying to capture him by revealing that he's been within sight of them the whole time they've been on the phone.

That "The Bourne Ultimatum" is a slight riff on the same jingle doesn't make it bad; actually, fans will be glad to see that all the fights, chases, villainous government types and cat-and-mouse tricks are back, fine-tuned and raised to a third level of intensity. But the insistence on repeating a good idea also leads to problems -- not just conversations with phrases like, "Was that in the second or third one?" but the fact that you always know what's coming and almost always know when. No longer on the edge of your seat, you have the leisure to giggle at familiar shock moments that used to surprise. A less pliable mark might suspect that the story no longer believes in itself as much as it believes in what makes you buy a ticket.

The third in the series follows more seamlessly than did the second. Though Doug Liman inaugurated the franchise, the second two have the same director, Paul Greengrass of "United 93," who finds even hotel dining an occurrence heart-pounding enough to warrant his shaky hand-held camera.

Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is still on the trail of his past and receives help in this episode first from an investigative reporter (Paddy Considine), who's been filing a series for The Guardian on Bourne, and then from agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who knows Bourne better than he remembers.

As befits a serial in the disguise of a trilogy, the basic story line is unchanged and barely expanded. Richard Kimble-meets-Rambo-meets-MacGyver, Bourne dashes from one scene of mayhem to another, always a major world city, and usually its highly photogenic airport or bus terminal. (Those wishing to avoid being caught up in a sniper hunt or 25-car back-alley smashup would be wise, it seems, to live outside of foreign capitals.) Always in pursuit of information, Bourne in every succeeding chapter is surprised to find — though we are not — an even more secret level of command responsible for his ability to break another man's limbs with the ease and speed most of us employ on a conjoined pair of wooden chopsticks.

Having dispatched those responsible for the insidious Treadstone project, Bourne finds there was an even more insidious name above it — Blackbriar — a word that will get you, your grandmother and her tabby surveilled if you are caught so much as thinking it. Blackbriar seems to be orchestrated by yet another top CIA operations chief (David Strathairn) — very similar to the characters Brian Cox and Chris Cooper played in the preceding movies — though above him there's also a rogue psychiatrist (Albert Finney) and a sketchy CIA director. Bourne's nemeses multiply like rabbits, so don't feel bad if you can't tell exactly which shady character answers to whom, or who's ultimately responsible. All you can say for sure is that an awful lot of people seem to be in on an ultrasecret black-ops project.

Their minions, others trained like Bourne, are text-messaged instructions to take him out, and this leads to more mayhem. Twisting, turning plot points aside, it's obvious from the smallest "oomph" to the biggest explosion who Bourne is after — boys who yearn to mastermind a revenge scheme behind a cell-phone earpiece and the wheel of a dashing European sedan.

You have to call "Ultimatum" a success if you come to terms with its goal, which is to be the coolest, toughest, wittiest action movie on the market. It even manages to work in some commentary on certain dubious interrogation techniques. In all their endeavors, the "Bourne" movies rise to the top of the action pool. Who cares if it seems the title names are drawn from a hat, as long as Damon keeps playing the most badass traveling salesman in the world? (PG-13) 111 min. S



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