How Bourne birthed a new breed of action
Every once in a while, a film so unique and exciting comes along and completely revitalises its genre. Star Wars. Airplane!. Pulp Fiction. All singular masterpieces and the effects of each rippled throughout the industry, forcing other filmmakers and storytellers to follow suit or raise their game. So it was with Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity, which irreversibly changed the action movie genre a decade ago today.
Loosely based on the spy novel by Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity was released in 2002 to medium expectations. Director Doug Liman cut his teeth on indie comedy Swingers and teen thriller Go, while Matt Damon had no previous form in the action genre and though well-known for serious dramatic roles, was largely thought of as being too baby-faced to play an action hero. The perfect cover for a master assassin? Paul Rudd's character put it best in The 40-Year-Old Virgin: "I always thought Matt Damon was like a Streisand… but he's rocking the s**t in this one!"
From a $60 million budget, The Bourne Identity surpassed box-office projections to the tune of $200 million worldwide. Damon's public persona changed overnight from sweet and innocent kid to serious kicker of ass. Why? Because Bourne gave action movie audiences something they hadn't seen for years: reality. No needless explosions. No quipping before killing. No charismatic villains with obvious weak spots. Bourne was for real.
Jason Bourne wasn't a hulking muscleman à la Sylvester Stallone, or a grizzled cop who just wanted his family back à la Harrison Ford. He wasn't even an ex-Special Forces soldier with a heart of gold and fists of steel à la Steven Seagal. Put simply, Jason Bourne was not just a man – he was a weapon. Trained as a killer by the government and tossed into the ocean after they'd had their fun, Bourne was about as dangerous as it was possible for a man of 5'10" to be. He couldn't lift a car over his head, but he could kill a guy with a pencil. And really, which is more impressive?
Doug Liman – who made way for Paul Greengrass on The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum but stayed on as a producer – chose to shoot much of Bourne on handheld camera, meaning Damon's fight scenes had a fast, fluid quality to them, even if some viewers found it difficult to keep up. Though a little disorientating, Bourne's hand-to-hand fight sequences were bewilderingly fast and thumpingly realistic – when punches and kicks landed, you really felt them. Suddenly, the world wanted to know all about the art of Krav Maga and no one was interested in gigantic action heroes who took an hour to throw a punch any more. Truly, Bourne had changed the game.
Would you enter into hand-to-hand combat with this man?
Paul Greengrass honed the grounded, frantic style of The Bourne Identity in sequels Supremacy (2004) and Ultimatum (2007), completing an action trilogy without compare in the modern era. By now, Bourne's methods had been co-opted by other action franchises – the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger were old war horses put out for pasture, while younger, more lithe actors tried their hand at action (see: Colin Farrell in The Recruit, Jason Statham in The Transporter).
When it was time for 007 to return in Quantum Of Solace, reviewers noticed the uncanny similarities between James Bond and Jason Bourne (initials aside); the fact that Bourne stunt master Dan Bradley worked on both series was no secret. One movie into his own reinvigorated franchise, and Bond was already cribbing off the new kid. Now, every action movie you see shares some DNA with Bourne – it's a franchise synonymous with choppy fight scenes, muted colours and gritty atmosphere, much imitated but never bettered.
This August, Tony Gilroy – screenwriter of The Bourne Ultimatum – will direct quasi-sequel The Bourne Legacy, but with Jeremy Renner stepping in for the absent Matt Damon: a Bourne movie without Bourne. It remains to be seen if Damon was the key ingredient, but from the trailer, Legacy doesn't look like changing the winning formula. The techniques have been abused over time – nowadays shooting a fight scene means to cut every 0.5 seconds – but even in 2012, the original Bourne still has a distinct Identity all of its own.
The Bourne Legacy is released on 13th August | Follow us on Twitter