Amnesiac Prey

by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "N & lt;/span & obody does it better." When Carly Simon first sang those lyrics, she was referring to James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me. But that sentiment fits right in with former CIA agent Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in this third installment of the Robert Ludlum character's series. Yet it could also be referring to director Paul Greengrass, who, over the past couple of years, made The Bourne Supremacy and United 93.

With Ultimatum, it's a big welcome back for the ever-scowling anti-hero of the title -- this is a role that Damon knows and owns -- and for Greengrass, who, it can be imagined, said to everyone involved with the film, "Let's pull out all the stops this time, then pour in more adrenaline."

Ultimatum picks up in Moscow, where its predecessor left off, with Bourne limping along in the snow, followed by cops, determination on his face. From there, it's a tour of the world, with stops in Turin, Paris, London, Madrid, Tangier, New York and the CIA headquarters in Virginia.

As in the first two films, confusion is the order of the day. Bourne still has amnesia, isn't at all sure how or why his lightning reflexes turn him into a killing machine when men with guns come after him -- which describes the film's major motif -- and is trying not only to find out who assassinated his girlfriend last time around, but also to unlock what he's convinced is a CIA secret that "created" him.

While there isn't a single funny scene in the film, there will be plenty of chuckles from audiences who enjoy seeing government officials portrayed as fools, or at least as incompetent boobs when compared to Bourne. He has become not only a target for their assassination team of "assets" but also their worst adversary. Officials want him dead, and they're seen watching his every international movement on high-tech maps and video screens. But the experimental training they gave him has allowed him to always stay a step ahead, to make the frustrated CIA honcho Noah Vosen (David Strathairn, cool and calm for most of this) think over and over, "Curses, foiled again!"

While the film spends a lot of time with Vosen and crew slowly but surely unraveling over their quarry's evasive actions (and subsequent offensive maneuvers), it also turns into a very different cat and mouse game -- zooming in on the uncomfortable working relationship between Vosen and Pamela Landy (Joan Allen, reprising her role as the no-nonsense CIA agent). They dislike each other upon meeting, regularly trade snipes, and become darkly entertaining to watch as it all escalates.

The script features some slick, inside lines of dialogue: When Vosen wants someone followed outside, he quietly orders, "Give me eyeballs on the streets." Greengrass, cinematographer Oliver Wood and composer John Powell (both three-time Bourne veterans) load the film up with frantic action and an incessant, percussive (but non-headache-inducing) soundtrack. Veteran Greengrass editors Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse never hold back from delivering a fast pace, whether showing a series of blurry flashbacks (a couple of them actually featuring rare smiles) or any of the fantastic chases that fly through streets and alleys, down stairways and up to rooftops.

In what's become a tradition of the Bourne films, there's a fight scene, played out in tight close-up, with no music, only the sounds of grunts and fists making contact, that's by far the best two-man battle onscreen since... well, since the excellent one in The Bourne Supremacy.

The only flaw here is that Greengrass goes to the well a couple too many times with a hand-held camera -- certainly not a Steadicam -- in the film's few static scenes, resulting in nothing more than an unsettling shakiness on the screen. It's more distracting than effective.

But it's almost unreasonable to complain about that when Ultimatum is so engrossing. It involves a high body count, people who never sleep, experiments in behavior modification and absolutely no sense of how much time passes.

Answers are provided to many of the questions that have puzzled Jason Bourne and viewers from the beginning of the series, and the ending is a great, applause-worthy one. In a summer jammed with second sequels to hit films, this is the best so far.