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A killer 'Ultimatum'

Matt Damon is smarter and tougher than ever in his third 'Bourne' outing

The ‘‘Bourne’’ series makes for an unusual action franchise. All the movies are exhilarating, including the third installment, ‘‘The Bourne Ultimatum,’’ which opens tonight and leaves a bruise. Part of what makes them so good is that they’re all-inclusive. You could take your mother, your teenage kids, your mailman, your history professor, and your dog — everybody goes home happy. The movies are smart — smarter than you, but not in an off-putting way. Their basic appeal, especially this new one, is that Matt Damon’s killing machine, Jason Bourne, is the cleverest man on earth. And we thrill to his sense of superiority.

There’s a great early sequence in ‘‘Ultimatum’’ in which Bourne, fresh from avenging his girlfriend’s death in the previous movie and now in London’s crowded Waterloo Station, manipulates a meeting with a reporter in the know (Paddy Considine) whose top-level contacts have won the murderous attention of the CIA. Via cellphone, Bourne choreographs the guy’s every move. These scenes are funny, suspenseful, and exquisitely shot and edited in a first for the movies: a pas de deux by remote control.

Bourne’s memory is working again and, with the help of Julia Stiles’ conflicted CIA agent (her part is bigger now and her hair streakier), a mental picture of his exploiters is forming. As he gets closer to putting all the pieces together, he’ll have similar dances with David Strathairn and Joan Allen as the pair of feds increasingly at odds with each other over how to handle Bourne’s eventual descent upon their offices in Manhattan. The movie, written by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns, and George Nolfi, seems to be digging into our current surveillance and espionage quandaries.

Strathairn’s character spends half the movie dispatching skilled men to kill Bourne. They’re called assets, and as the film trots the globe each city offers an asset who’s hilariously ethnically appropriate and model-handsome. It’s as if John Casablancas has started an assassins agency.

These films are lean and swift. The violence comes in bursts but lasts as long as some musical numbers — there are fights and chases here that would knock Bob Fosse into next week and make Bruce Lee break down in tears. The documentary transparency is characteristic of Paul Greengrass. He directed both this new installment and the previous one, 2004’s ‘‘The Bourne Supremacy,’’ as well as the Sept. 11 drama ‘‘United 93.’’

That transparent quality makes his ‘‘Bourne’’ movies seem unadulterated and unalloyed. In

other words: absurdly real, despite Bourne’s apparent indestructibility. The landed blows

make you wince. So does the film’s score, which the movie is slathered with; the sound design is so percussively good that music seems redundant.

Part of that realism extends to the movie’s locations. Habitually, Hollywood’s wanderlust is a bid to enrich the international box office. Here the globetrotting is functional. Greengrass and his crew tailor the chases and fights to each location. The rooftops and cul-de-sacs of Tangier completely recalibrate the typical breathless foot chase. Now the physical dimensions of everything seem smaller, tighter, intensified. That sequence climaxes with an instant-classic fight in a cramped apartment between Bourne and a Casablancas killer.

There’s also a car chase in New York City that is so brutally real it seems plain impossible or just magical. Crashes as spectacular as these would make the international news.

With these ‘‘Bourne’’ movies, we can all feel like we’re getting what we want: unless what you desire is Matt Damon grinning. He cracks arms, legs, necks, but never a smile. It’s hard to think of an actor better suited to playing this stuff with a straight face and the streak of human feeling that Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jet Li, and Jason Statham are allergic to. Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis would feel remiss if they didn’t wink. But Robert Ludlum, on

whose books these movies are based, didn’t write for the megaplex. He wrote to keep you

charged up on the plane. There’s no ‘‘Yippee-Kay-Yay’’ here. You’d have to go back to another Ford — Glenn — for Damon’s professionalism. But Glenn Ford was scarcely

the athlete Damon is.

After three movies’ worth of running, jumping, and some electrifying hand-to-hand combat, Damon no longer seems bewildered by his physical skills. He seems content with action-figurehood. There’s a whiff of sexual connection with Stiles, who seems downright European with all the staring her character does, but she just makes you miss the German

actress Franke Potente, who played Bourne’s girlfriend in the first picture. Mostly, Damon looks understandably forlorn. I’d like to see him in a comedy soon, if only to confirm that he still has all his teeth.

That’s how tough these movies are. Yet they’re naturally muscular where the average Hollywood blockbuster is on human growth hormone. Many of the sequences

in ‘‘Bourne’’ seem wildly, spontaneously choreographed.

When Bourne does a running leap off one of those Tangier rooftops across an alley and into an apartment window, it’s a familiar action-flick move. But the immediacy takes your breath away. You might be impressed, but the movie doesn’t leave a second to pat itself

on the back with a slow-motion shot or a lot of build-up. He jumps. He crashes in. He lands.

And on we go. The intruded-upon residents are spooked, but you’d have to be looking hard for their startled faces, since it’s over for both them and us in a flash. If you need an awed reaction shot, bring date and watch his or her face.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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