Jason Bourne has surfaced again, this time in The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in the series starring Matt Damon. All three belong to the familiar genre of the male-oriented, paranoid Euro-thriller. Typically these juxtapose the beauty of the cities of Europe with the anxiety of an agent attempting to carry out some mission but being double-crossed and hunted by the corrupt officials of the very Agency for which he works.

The Bourne films carry this obviously satisfying Kafka-like situation one step further by having the amnesiac Bourne searching to find out who he actually is, as well as who he was. The Bourne Identity, a TV film of 1988 starring Richard Chamberlin, followed the plot of the Robert Ludlum novel somewhat closely, but as this very lacklustre version demonstrated, Bourne’s missing identity, however relevant to our own cultural loss of bearing, does not in itself make a good film.

Yet in an era of debatable identities, distrust of governments, and dysfunctional agencies, the faceless Jason Bourne may be just the right stuff to represent the times.

Of their type, these Bourne thrillers are first-rate, the result of better scripts, better acting, better camera work, better scores, and not least, better direction. Tony Gilroy, the screen writer for all three Bourne movies, abandons the complexities of Ludlum and streamlines Bourne’s basic quandary: “Who am I?” Paul Greengrass, the director of the last two Bournes, successfully brings out the inner Bourne, while he superbly choreographs the chases and fights through hand-held cameras, fast cutting, and close-in shots that give one a “you are there” sensation. Previously he directed the Northern Ireland drama, Bloody Sunday (2002) and the 9/11 tragedy United 93 (2004). John Powell has provided haunting scores to all three, in a style similar to John Barry’s Enigma (2001) and the great scores of Bernard Herrmann.

A major factor for their success results from their not depending on non-stop actions and explosions, the usual roller-coaster matter of such films. They do provide the obligatory car chases, a seemingly essential convention of action films since 1968 when Bullitt bounced over the hilly streets of San Francisco.

But they also offer several other types of action. One consists of another contract killer’s botched attack on Bourne followed by a life and death karate contest in a claustrophobic room or apartment, previously thought to be safe. Another consists of Bourne’s elaborate escape from a building surrounded by opponents who are closing in on him. These are then followed by foot chases through the labyrinth of the city. Best of all are the scenes in which Bourne has arranged some sort of rendezvous in a public space, in which by phone he attempts to lead another person, either friend or foe, to some designated destination. In The Bourne Identity (2002), this takes place in Paris on the Pont de Neuf; in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) in Berlin’s Alexander Platz; and in The Bourne Ultimatum in London’s Waterloo Station. This last is by far the most elaborate, a cinematic mise-en-scene which by itself justifies the price of admission.

Such action scenes are punctuated by calmer intervals which allow the plot to thicken and Bourne to approach closer to his discovery. And all along, the films cut back and forth between Bourne’s whereabouts and Langley, Virginia, CIA headquarters, or some other CIA building where rows of monitors and electronic devices, connected to satellite cameras and data banks, provide a God-like awareness of Bourne’s every move. They demonstrate the omnipotence of the government: what can a lone individual, master survivalist though he be, do against such an array of power and seeming competence?

Yet survive he does, providing relief and satisfaction to the helplessness one feels living in the tangle of a massive bureaucracy. To these pleasures the Bourne films also provide a not-too-implicit moral, namely, that the ends do not justify the means. Bourne is a professional assassin with a covert license to kill. That, he discovers, is what he used to be. But in The Bourne Identity he cannot complete his mission and shoot an African leader troublesome to the US government. The sight of the victim’s small children penetrates Bourne’s cold terminator heart. His hesitation causes him to become the victim, shot by the African or his security, and now an embarrassment to the CIA, whose leaders do not wish Congress and the world to know about Treadstone, and later, Blackbriar, its illegal and clandestine assassination units.

Bourne is too good a man to be cut out for this work, and he suffers from the guilt of what he has been. In Supremacy, the climax of the film takes place in Moscow, where he has gone to apologise to the daughter of two innocent victims he shot while on his first assignment. In all three films Bourne, unlike other action heroes, tries to avoid killing. In this he resembles good old Randolph Scott in the westerns, who spends most of the plot trying to avoid a showdown, but, “There are some things a man can’t ride around.” In another sense, since those whom Bourne does kill, “assets” as the Agency calls them, derive from the same source as he does, his struggles against them amount to attempts to overcome his former self.

Unlike the Bourne in the TV film, who lost his memory due to a head wound, this Bourne of the movies was chemically created and brainwashed into being the robot-like killer whose actions conflict so severely with the man’s “natural” humanity. His handlers, Chris Cooper and Brian Cox, have no such morals. Supposedly serving the interests of the country, their greed and corruption have left patriotism far behind. Their desire to eliminate Bourne results not so much from the threat he poses to the illegal operations of the Agency but from their fear that he will expose their personal crimes. At least this is the revelation in Supremacy, the second of the series.

Not so in Ultimatum, the third, in which David Straithorn, the new head of covert operations proves more ominous and frightening just because he’s an honest man who imagines that killing Bourne — he cares not whether Bourne is or is not innocent — will genuinely serve some imaginary moral purpose. The ends do not justify the means, and “Necessity, the Tyrant’s plea” as Milton termed such Satanic policies, will not do in The Bourne Ultimatum any more than it did in Paradise Lost. Only God can bring good out of evil, when humans attempt it – and thus play God – they bring disaster on themselves and everyone about them. Throughout all three films, Bourne struggles against this philosophy, though of course the films avoid any religious terminology.

This moral outlook of the films serves to unite them. No doubt they will be called a “trilogy”, though in fact each film stands on its own, and their plots do not really follow one another. All have a happy ending. In Identity, Bourne reunites with Maria (Franca Potente), the woman who helped him escape from Zurich and became his lover, on a Greek isle. He has at least discovered his alleged name, how he came to be shot, and why, having been trained as an assassin, he is such a resourceful lethal weapon. In Supremacy, which ends in New York, he seems to have reached détente with the Agency through the good offices of Joan Allen, the good supervisor, who in the course of this film converts from being a Bourne opponent to a defender. Appropriately, as a mother figure, she who informs him that his real name in David Webb.

But Ultimatum repeats this same process. It begins in Moscow – in Supremacy Bourne had successfully escaped from this city – and Allen who at the end of that movie was left in charge of Agency operations, now serves in a subordinate capacity to Straithorn, suspecting, what she knew as fact in the previous film, that Bourne is not a threat to the CIA or anyone else. So Bourne’s actions justify her redundant hunch about him, and once more in New York, after he learns more about the process which made him a killer, she gives him his name and date of birth. Though superbly done, the third film, in terms of Bourne‘s quest, but repeats the story of the second.

Only in the first film does Bourne engage in romance. His lover, Maria, is killed at the outset of the second. But the only actor besides Matt Damon in all three films is Julia Stiles. In the first she operates the Agency’s safe house in Paris; in the second she is sent to Berlin and is the one who agrees to meet him in Alexander Platz. In the third, she accompanies him to Tangiers, and in one of the film’s quiet interludes indicates that she knew him when he was David Webb.

Is this a hint of still another Bourne? Will Bourne continue as a series, or as Greengrass calls it on the Supremacy DVD commentary, “a franchise” like James Bond? The newspapers report that neither Greengrass nor Gilroy intend to work further on Jason Bourne. Yet the success of the films, each one making more money than the last, suggests that Bourne, or Webb, still has much to learn about himself. We notice that since Ludlum’s death and the publication of the three novels which have the same names as the movies, if not the same plots, another mystery writer has completed two more Bourne novels, both best sellers. So like Bond, Bourne may reappear.

Though Bond and Bourne dwell in the same cloak-and-dagger genre, they are diametrically opposed. Bond is self-assured; Bourne doubtful and troubled. Bond is a seductive womaniser; Bourne a monogamous novice. Bond takes pleasure in killing; Bourne feels only guilt and seeks redemption for his past. Bond serves a moral authority: Bourne a corrupt establishment. Because Bond’s license to kill is justified, his films avoid questioning means and ends. Because Bourne’s license is phoney, in his films ends vs means becomes the central moral issue. Bond is a modern version of the hero with a thousand faces. Yet in an era of debatable identities, distrust of governments, and dysfunctional agencies, the faceless Jason Bourne may be just the right stuff to represent the times.

William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of “Hollywood: An Epic Production”, a highly praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.