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Bourne Again 

Plus, Austen powers period piece

ZOOM TO MANEUVER: Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) takes to the streets in The Bourne Ultimatum. - JASIN BOLAND / UNIVERSAL

The third time's the charm with The Bourne Ultimatum (*** out of four), the best in the series of films based on the popular novels by the late Robert Ludlum.

Admittedly, I wasn't as great a fan as everyone else when it came to the first two entries in the series, 2002's The Bourne Identity and 2004's The Bourne Supremacy. While I appreciated the films' efforts to bring the spy flick back to its gritty and less gadget-oriented roots (an approach better accomplished by last year's James Bond reinvention, Casino Royale), both Identity (directed by Doug Liman) and Supremacy (helmed by Paul Greengrass) felt as if they were constantly getting stuck in the same grooves, with repetitive action sequences, a squandering of great talent in throwaway roles and a tight-lipped protagonist so one-note that viewer empathy was next to impossible.

These problems haven't all been rectified in Ultimatum, but they don't nag as consistently as before. Matt Damon, suitably taciturn even though he's still too young for the role, again stars as Jason Bourne, the former CIA assassin whose continuing bout of amnesia regarding his past perpetually keeps him searching for the truth, even as his agency handlers seek to have him terminated. Inheriting villainous duties from Chris Cooper (Identity) and Brian Cox (Supremacy) is David Strathairn, cast as the latest government suit hoping to protect his own nefarious interests by taking out Bourne.

The reactions of Strathairn's character to constantly being outsmarted by Bourne are priceless and provide the film with its brief flashes of humor. And adding some much needed humanity to the proceedings are Joan Allen and Julia Stiles, returning to their roles as CIA operatives of different ranks. More ambiguous in previous installments, these characters are finally defined in terms of their motives and moral imperatives.

Greengrass, returning to the series after taking time off to earn a Best Director Oscar nomination for United 93, tops himself with action set pieces that prove to be more exciting than those on display in his Supremacy (or Liman's Identity). One of the lengthy chase scenes is especially impressive and makes one wonder if Damon elected to forego a straight salary in order to be paid by the kilometer.

BOOK CASE: Becoming Jane centers on an episode in the life of literary giant Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway). - COLM HOGAN / MIRAMAX
  • Colm Hogan / Miramax
  • BOOK CASE: Becoming Jane centers on an episode in the life of literary giant Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway).

PERFECTLY PLEASANT yet also somewhat pointless, Becoming Jane (**1/2) comes across less as a motion picture and more as a victim of identity theft.

Given the glut of exemplary films based on the works of Austen -- from the fairly faithful (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice) to the radically reworked (Bridget Jones's Diary, Clueless) -- the only sound reasons to create a movie based on Jane herself would be either to suggest some insights into what turned this country girl into one of the most acclaimed writers in the English language or to provide a comprehensive overview of her life and times. But Becoming Jane prefers to take a more narrow view, focusing on one small period in her life (and, based on historical records, a spotty one at that) and trumping up the details of her brief flirtation with a dashing rogue named Tom Lefroy, who would later become Lord High Justice of Ireland. As a result, the Jane in this film never feels real, ultimately coming across as fictional a creation as Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood or any other Austen heroine.

Still, within its own self-contained chamber, Becoming Jane is an agreeable period romp, missing the spark of the high-end Austen adaptations but firmly in command of its own romantic devices. Anne Hathaway, all-American in The Devil Wears Prada and Brokeback Mountain, adopts a British accent (shades of Renee Zellweger tackling Bridget Jones) and makes for a lively Jane (even if, physically, she more resembles Austen's contemporary, Lady Caroline Lamb). Meanwhile, James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) brings the proper measure of rakish charm to the part of Lefroy.

It all goes down smoothly, and if the incomplete portrait of Jane Austen sends even one person to the library to hunt down more info, so much the better.

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