Can an action film also be a work of art? That's one of the questions raised by The Bourne Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass's third installment in the thriller series starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, an ex-assassin on a mission to discover a personal history obliterated by amnesia and clouded by years on the run. Bourne's past memories are fragmentary; his present-tense instincts are rock-solid. He can't tell you his real name or hometown, but he can field-strip a gun without looking at it, find a way out of any trap, hotwire a car with less effort than it would take the owner to find, insert and turn the key. But these killing skills can't get him to the center of his shattered life -- who he was, what he did.
And The Bourne Ultimatum does have elements of art: Political and social resonance, visual and linguistic symbolism, references to the world the films have shown us and the world outside of it, rich characters with fully-developed personalities. It also has all the elements of the modern action thriller -- how'd-they-do-that stunt work, crazy-fast fight action, tautly-wound scene construction that culminates in moments that leave you breathless. The Bourne Ultimatum picks up precisely where The Bourne Supremacy (also directed by Greengrass) left off -- Bourne, wounded and alone, is in Moscow. He's just atoned to the daughter of two of his victims -- killed not in the name of national security or the public good, but rather for private gain. Bourne's work was a secret -- but Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), a journalist for The Guardian has been running pieces about Bourne's work and Treadstone, the black ops group he worked for. Bourne would like to know who Ross's source is. So would the people who are trying to re-start Treadstone under the new name Blackbriar, to make it "... the sharp end of the stick ..." in America's arsenal.