By Gregory Kirschling
Updated July 20, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Here’s a confession from a longtime summer-movie buff. Every time I see that black CG goo oozing over Tobey Maguire’s Spidey suit in the Spider-Man 3 trailer — and every time I see Davy Jones’ tentacle beard squiggling in the Pirates 3 ads, or even Optimus Prime jackknifing into computer-assisted life in the cool Transformers TV spots — it makes me that much more jazzed to catch The Bourne Ultimatum on Aug. 3.

No offense to Spidey, Davy, or Mr. Prime — see all you dudes on opening weekend — but at the moment, the Bourne movies are the best thing going for the thinking action fan. The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy are sleek, old-school spy vehicles: pile-driving, character-driven, and anchored by a riveting hero who is in no way played by a computer. As Jason Bourne, the CIA-trained amnesiac assassin screwed over by his government, Matt Damon has found a role perfectly constructed for his tightly coiled and wounded mien. And the Bourne movies are currently doing more than any other franchise to bring verisimilitude back to the blockbuster, which every year seems to be losing more and more of its soul to the encroaching black goo of CG fantasy.

”I think the unique thing about the franchise is that it has got that root in reality,” says Paul Greengrass, the director of Supremacy and Ultimatum, and a recent Oscar nominee for United 93. ”Bourne’s not a superhero, is he? I always remember that moment in Supremacy when he uses the magazine in the fight, and it’s nothing — just a magazine. He doesn’t worship at the altar of technology like a lot of these heroes do, with their bigger and bigger cars and gadgets. I think that helps ground him.” Indeed, it was astonishing, last fall, to witness the obvious influence Bourne exerted on the grittier, shorter, more muscular, more vulnerable, and suddenly more realistic James Bond in Casino Royale. The upstart had schooled the granddaddy.

Despite being loosely based on Robert Ludlum’s spy trilogy, the Bourne movies weren’t originally conceived as summer-movie franchise fodder. Identity was slated for release in the fall of 2001 until director Doug Liman’s reshoots forced a move to June 2002. And at the time, Damon’s status as a leading man was scuffling — he’d seen All the Pretty Horses and The Legend of Bagger Vance tank. But Identity was a surprise hit, winning over critics and grossing $122 million. And when 2004 rolled around, Supremacy was an even bigger one, grossing $53 million on its opening weekend and a domestic total of $176 million. All of which presented an amusing problem: Nobody had gotten around to thinking what they’d do if audiences demanded a third movie.

”We made each movie with absolutely no eye to the next,” says Damon. ”If we had thought, ‘Well, we’re gonna make three or six or ten, then I don’t think we would’ve killed Marie [his love interest in Identity, played by Franka Potente], because that’s something you want to save.” Then he laughs. ”Maybe we would’ve let them run around the world for part 2, and held back her death for part 3. But it’s a cynical approach to think, ‘Okay, this is going to be a big franchise.’ We didn’t want to do that.”

So what is Bourne up to in Ultimatum? If the strong story hook of Supremacy was Marie’s death, Greengrass explains, this time the heart of the movie is ”bringing Bourne home” as he still tries to unravel the secrets of his famously lost identity. En route, the superspy takes on a new breed of government assassins overseen by a new character played by David Strathairn. Eventually, after a motorbike and rooftop chase through Tangier, Bourne ends up back in New York, where the film climaxes with a car chase through midtown and downtown Manhattan that took six weeks to film. ”We’ve had two really great chases in the previous films,” explains Damon, ”and they were both stepchildren of the one in The French Connection in a way, and so we felt we had to dare to go back to New York.” Greengrass promises the scene adheres to ”the Bourne aesthetic,” which means he actually shot in the city streets, and the sequence isn’t digitally created.

The director adds that even though this Bourne trilogy is completed, he’d love to see the character keep going. ”The Bourne movies stand out because Bourne is a real man, in a real world,” he says. ”And he’s in pursuit of a quest that’s as mythic and old as Greek tragedy: He’s in search of his identity. And when you marry those things together as a Bourne movie, it’s a precious thing. It’s not just a big-budget popcorn movie — I mean, it’s gotta be that, it’s gotta work on a Saturday night throughout the world. But if it’s just that, it’s not a Bourne movie. Then it’s just like all the others.” (August 3)

The Bourne Ultimatum

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 111 minutes
  • Paul Greengrass