He’s hurt and he’s bleeding but he’s still moving fast.
That’s how The Bourne Ultimatum begins. If ever a movie was defined by its velocity then this is it. He doesn’t stop. There’s no time, as in a Bond movie, to sit and drink or seduce a girl. Jason Bourne – though never quite morose, isn’t given to having fun. He’s a spy for the War on Terror-era: victory means he’s alive, failure means he’s dead. He doesn’t smile. Matt Damon has a way of playing the spy as if spying was the worst job in the world, and he just happens to be the best at it. He isn’t Bond, but he isn’t Kim Philby either. It isn’t so much that Bourne doesn’t drive fast cars and kill people; he just seems to do it in a way that’s plausible as opposed to pornographic. He doesn’t want you to get off on what he does. He does it because he has to.
The Bourne Identity had such a seismic impact on contemporary action cinema that it’s hard to remember it was once a little B-movie that no-one paid much attention to. Director Doug Liman was the guy who’d made Swingers and Go into moderate hits, but he wasn’t exactly seen as heir to John Woo. Matt Damon was still Good Will Hunting to most people and the Robert Ludlum source novel hadn’t been a hot property since the Carter administration. All signs pointed to the kind of movie Ben Affleck would be better suited to. But – They knew the kind of movie they didn’t want to be. They didn’t want to be loud; they didn’t want pyrotechnics; and they didn’t want Jessica Alba or whoever alternately screaming or feigning an orgasm. They wanted to be real.
The key to the success of the Bourne series isn’t that it has bigger or better stunts than anyone else – it’s how the stunts come across on-screen. Michael Bay would have a fit if he blew up all the cars and killed all the guys the Bourne-makers do without ever once using slo-mo. It’s almost inconceivable that only three years after The Matrix, The Bourne Identity doesn’t contain a single second of bullet-time. But this was its genius. It did what action movies never do: created a trend instead of reacting to one.
By the time Matt Damon picked British TV veteran Paul Greengrass to direct a sequel, conventional thinking didn’t matter anymore. Pre-Bourne Identity, some might have quibbled with such a left-field choice. Post-Bourne Identity, Damon could have picked Andrei Tarkovsky and no-one would have demurred.
The series’ luck held too. Greengrass avoided the sophomore slump by refining Liman’s approach and bettering it with a style of his own. A sprinter’s pace was established – not from editing in a blender but from prudent edits, cutting just as the viewer sees what they should be looking at, rather than just because. The difference between frenetic action in The Bourne Ultimatum and frenetic action in The Rock is that Greengrass doesn’t use short cuts to induce excitement – he uses them to get inside Bourne’s head. Character is action. Perhaps it has to be when our hero is an amnesiac – a blank. There isn’t much for a viewer to empathise with in Bourne.
What grips you is his struggle. The Bourne Ultimatum isn’t a movie that plays up Bourne’s moral conscience the way The Bourne Supremacy did. He still wants to know who he is, but he isn’t asking for forgiveness anymore. This isn’t Bond with the girl and MI6 behind him – this is Bond as Bourne made him: out for revenge, bloody and alone. No romance in Bourne apart from the scenery. Even then, you almost don’t notice where he is half the time. You’re in Bourne’s head – anticipating. There isn’t time to take-in everything – surroundings blur when you’re in motion. The Bourne Ultimatum no more flaunts its location photography than it does its stunt-work. Everything is directed to one abiding purpose: see Bourne run.