Twenty years ago, the director Doug Limanscriptwriter Tony Gilroy and an upstart Matt Damon came together to make a spy action movie based on a popular novel series; they didn’t know that The Bourne Identity would revitalize a dormant genre and influence action movies for years to come. The action genre was going through a transition in 2002, having gradually moved away from muscle games Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger directed action films but still at seven years old Robert Downey Jr. and the rest of the Marvel Universe taking over the world. bringing The Bourne Identity on the big screen has always been a passion project for Liman, but casting Damon in the lead role of Jason Bourne was a risk.
Damon was a young actor known for his dramatic roles in Rounders, The Talented Mr. Ripley and of course Goodwill hunting. Damon surprised many with his acting skills playing Linus Caldwell in the star-studded series Ocean’s Eleven but taking on the role of an action star seemed far out of his way. Damon’s looks and boy-next-door charm made him the perfect man, but action stars were meant to look intimidating and Bourne’s character was a highly skilled fighter. The casting seemed completely out of place, but became one of Damon’s signature roles and created a new breed of action hero that’s still a part of today’s movie world.
Looking back, casting Damon in the title role made perfect sense. His ability to convey character intelligence while bringing a new dimension to the action hero role was something only an actor as talented as Damon could provide. Jason Bourne’s character was developed as someone who would be able to outmaneuver his opponent before fighting him and this develops throughout the film’s early sequences leading up to its action climax. During the park bench scene, the audience is as surprised as Bourne that he has the ability to fight the way he does, sending two police officers to the hospital. Liman and Damon worked together to create action scenes that relied on highly organized rapid movements – where a pen would literally be mightier than a sword.
One of the enduring characteristics of The Bourne Identity was how the action scenes were filmed. Previously, action movies were known for their wide-angle shots allowing the viewer to see the entire scene. The audience was viewed as a spectator from afar, watching the battle unfold but not feeling the battle. This is where Liman and company come in. The Bourne Identity moves away from that overarching view and moves to faster cuts, quick edits, and close-ups of the action to make the violence more legit. The camera work and filming of the action would become known as the “shaky camera” technique and under the direction of Bourne’s future director. Paul GreenGrass it would be pushed to its extreme. Liman’s style and technique of focusing intensely on the action became standard for genre films in the future, including James Bond and John Wick series. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Liman’s acting style on film was the fact that he kept his cameramen out of rehearsals, so they became part of the natural feel of the film.
The casting and camera work of The Bourne Identity was crucial to the film’s success, but it was the unique take on the spy character and fight choreography that created the Bourne legacy. One of the things that stands out about Jason Bourne is his ability to think before he acts. Damon plays Bourne as someone finding his place in the world while being completely sure of what his training has taught him. Many people call Bourne the Thinking Man Action Hero because his physical stature plays second fiddle to his ability to read a situation and react appropriately. There’s some truth to that label because even though Bourne is literally a walking weapon, the danger comes from what he can do with his mind instead of always being seen as a threat. Liman and Damon work together to create a character of Bourne who is able to single-handedly take down a group of Marines but is also a big thinker before being a fighter. During the bank escape scene, Bourne examines a map and records his plan faster than he can throw a punch, creating a hyper-smart action icon. This representation affected Daniel Craigperformance in the Bond franchise. Craig plays Bond the same way, making sure the audience always knows that James Bond is the smartest man in the room. Think of the poker scenes in Casino Royalewhere Bond is constantly in strategic mode, outplaying his opponents at the table while playing the long game as a spy.
The legacy of the original Bourne film will always be how the action scenes affected future action and spy thrillers. The film’s groundbreaking fight choreography begins with how Damon trained for the film, focusing on the kali and krav maga martial arts disciplines which focus on using the aggressor’s energy against him, while keeping yours. This new way of developing an action scene was something American audiences weren’t used to, and it changed the way movies would be made in the future. The most striking example of this is the apartment fight between Jason Bourne and the assassin sent to kill him, Castel (Nicky Naude). Combat is the epitome of melee combat that focuses on the practical use of space and common things you might find in an apartment. There’s a brutality to the fight that jumps out at the viewer, almost as if we’re in the same room. Again, it’s the Bond franchise that borrows this idea for the apartment fight scene in Quantum of Comfort. It wasn’t just the Bond movies that evolved into this style of fighting, but also the Taken film series starring Liam Neeson, which helped make the fight scenes more believable considering Neeson’s age and reputation as a dramatic actor. The Impossible mission the film series would also feature a close combat scene in a bathroom involving Tom Cruise and Henry Cavillcharacters. The Bourne Identity set out to create a different type of hero, and did so, while creating a new style of combat on the big screen.
While Liman and Damon should get a lot of credit for their take on the character, it was the on-set stunt performers who were the real heroes. Nick Powell, Jeff Imada and Damon Caro became three of Hollywood’s most prominent and influential stunt choreographers, and all three worked on the first Bourne film, helping to create its distinct fight sensation. Powell was the second unit director on set and directed the staircase sequence at the end of the film and the car chase scene known for its realism. Imada and Caro helped train Damon and would go on to work on many DC movies directed by Zack Snyder. Imada’s influence on the spy genre continues with this summer High-speed train looking at brad pitt.
Close combat scenes where the environment becomes part of the violence are now an expectation of the spy thriller, but in 2002 this motif was a revolutionary idea created by The Bourne Identity crew.