I finally got to see The Bourne Ultimatum this week. Given that it has grossed $$220m in the US since being released in late August, I have to say I was a little disappointed.
You will remember Bourne's dilemma. He woke up on a fishing boat off Marseilles three years ago with a line of bullets in his back plus a subcutaneous capsule containing the details of a Swiss Bank account.
And that's it. Except, of course, that somebody out there is after him, determined to prevent him from revealing whatever it is that he's forgotten.
In this third outing of the hugely successful franchise, the baby-faced Bourne, played by Matt Damon, continues to batter his way round the world's more glittering capitals in search of his identity. Whoever he is, he reckons, he has to be better than the guy staring out at him from his shaving mirror.
Hundreds of CIA henchmen are beaten off with contemptuous ease, while he despatches a series of lookalike 'assets' (ie trained assassins) in contests that take place so fast that all one can make out is a blur of flying hands and feet and the eventual, dying "uuugh" of the downed assailant.
Able for some reason to shrug off injuries that would have condemned the rest of us to emergency surgery followed by six months in traction, Bourne leaps off walls, drives off buildings and crashes through plate glass windows. No one in the Bourne trilogy ever sits down to discuss what the problem might be. It is guns and fists that do the talking.
This is a chase movie in which the chase is everything. I chase therefore I am. Bourne literally pursues the truth, following it from Moscow to Paris, to London, to Madrid, to Tangiers and, finally, New York, only to discover, inevitably, that he was in part the author of his own misfortune - a CIA grunt who agreed to shoot people for a living without asking any questions.
We sympathise with him because, two movies back, after being almost killed in a botched raid, he had a change of heart. Sure, he tells us, I've done a few things in my life I'm not particularly proud of. But it wasn't my fault - honest! In seeking out those responsible for turning him into a murdering maniac, his plan is simple. He will kill anybody and everybody who takes issue with his humanity. "This isn't just a story in a newspaper," he tells a quivering Guardian journalist who has stumbled on the truth, "this is real". Suspension of disbelief is essential to any understanding of Jason Bourne, whose past life flashes before him even before he nearly drowns in the East River. But incredible though our hero's story is, it is as easily understood as an episode of Friends compared to the apparent God-like power of the CIA.
You may recall that the real CIA knew nothing and understood even less in the build-up to the terrorist attacks of 2001. Well, that was then, this is now. Today, it turns out, they are omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, able in a flash to listen in to any telephone conversation in the world, peer into private homes and offices, call up whole catalogues of information on anyone at the drop of a hat, instantly activate an asset in any town or city round the globe and, most mysteriously of all, control the closed circuit television cameras at London's Waterloo station.
Yes, but can they do the same at Belfast Central? Talk about Big Brother!
As I watched the Bourne movie zip past at my local theatre, surrounded by overweight New Yorkers eating nachos dipped in processed cheese, I thought I could detect a swelling of pride at the apparent extent of America's technological prowess. The invitation to the audience was simple. Never mind that the CIA is being run like an abbatoir, rejoice in the power. Needless to say, the bad guys (or a couple of them, at least) get their come-uppance. "This is not what I signed up for," a company executive tells Bourne when he asks her why she has decided to help him. But for the organisation itself, including all those who served as their bosses' willing executioners, it is very much business as usual. Oddly enough, the director, Paul Greengrass, isn't American, but British. A friend of mine, who used to write scripts with Greengrass in the days before he made Bloody Sunday, his award-winning recreation of the events in Derry on January 30, 1972, is surprised by the way he's turned out. Where once Greengrass was a serious documentary film maker, now, it seems, he is content to be judged by the box office.
I suppose the final conceit is that Brits can now take pride in the fact that Greengrass, like Tony and Ridley Scott before him, has taken on the Americans and beaten them at their own game. You want action? You want mayhem? You want hour after hour of dizzyingly choreographed, yet meaningless violence? Well, you know who to turn to.