There’s certainly no shortage of fights, explosions, and car chases to witness onscreen these days, but much of the action is, frankly, dull—the result of a tired series or a simple lack of creativity.
Just over a decade ago, however, the Bourne Identity set the action bar high. And since today is the tenth anniversary of the franchise’s second film, The Bourne Supremacy, we’re taking a look back at how the series got action right, how it has weathered the last 10 years, and what action films circa 2014 can learn from the trilogy.
Doug Liman, executive producer, and Dan Bradley, stunt coordinator and second unit director, both agree: The action in The Bourne Supremacy—and the trilogy as a whole—stands up because it’s character-driven. It’s in the vein of The French Connection’s signature car chase, featuring Gene Hackman’s Doyle pounding his fists as he attempts to catch up to a train he’s pursuing.
[Note: Liman directed and produced The Bourne Identity, and executive produced The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Bradley served as stunt coordinator and second unit director for The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, and The Bourne Legacy. For the purposes of this story, we are focusing on the three original Bourne films.]
“There’s so many action movies where the dialogue and the character scenes are just an excuse to get you to the next action scene,” Liman says. “The action scenes are the reason the film exists.” Liman recognizes this problem in many of this summer’s releases, believing that these films would be “unwatchable” if you took the action out of them.
That’s not the case with the Bourne series. Rather, the drama and action go hand in hand, working as a cohesive unit. Look to Supremacy’s opening car chase in Goa, India: Kirill (Karl Urban) chases Jason (Matt Damon) and Marie (Franka Potente), attempting to kill Jason after having framed him in a CIA operation gone bad. Marie, who is driving in the latter half of the chase, is accidentally shot in the process, just after telling Jason he has the choice not to run from whomever is out to get him. The car then spins out of control and goes flying off a bridge. Here the action is gripping, but more importantly, it is also highly significant to the narrative—a main character is killed within the first 10 minutes. Jason must now move on from the death of Marie, find out why Kirill was sent to kill him, and also evade Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), the CIA Deputy Director hot on his framed trail. This chase acts as a catalyst for the rest of the film. This action has meaning.
It’s all about perspective. Liman treated the film as a drama, not an action film. “Across the board, you get higher quality when you call it a drama,” he explains. “I’d like to think that even in the midst of doing these action sequences, the fact that we were a drama forced everybody to think about how to make the scenes dramatic. That’s a different standard.” As an example, Liman points to the Fast and the Furious franchise, saying that what they do with cars is much more extreme than what Bourne did, but Bourne stands out because it did so much more dramatically.
The stunts in Supremacy in particular are so effective because they are working off the groundwork that was established by Liman and his second unit director, Alexander Witt, in Identity. Ultimatum then built upon Supremacy, taking that dramatic action even further. “It’s an extraordinary accomplishment to devise sequences that are better and smarter and sharper than the first film sequences that inspired them,” Liman says.
These elements—characters, drama—come together because the film looks real, just like the stunts. “It’s all caught on camera,” Bradley says. In other words, no CG was used in the films. That means the stunts are real, the car chases are real, everything was performed by real people. And that’s a far cry from many of the action films populating screens today.
Also consider this: Jason gets himself out of bad situations through realistic means. Sure, it comes off quite impressively because he makes intelligent, split-second decisions, but these life-saving actions are made using his cunning and preparedness alone, not high-tech gadgets. Look to the fist-fight with Jarda (Marton Csokas) and the subsequent house explosion in Supremacy. Jason beats up his assassin peer with a rolled up magazine and ultimately defeats him by choking him with a cord. He then unscrews the gas pipe and puts the aforementioned magazine in a toaster to catch fire, effectively destroying the evidence. He walks out the back door of the house, CIA agents head to the front door, and boom!
The result here, as in the car chases, is messy—but that’s exactly what Liman wanted. He explains that the spy films that preceded Bourne—especially those of the ’90s—were too pristine. He began the process knowing he didn’t want the trilogy to be like Mission Impossible, and especially not James Bond. He wanted to be rebellious, anti-establishment.
“James Bond always sort of came through the action immaculate, without a bead of sweat, without a scratch on the car,” Liman says. “I wanted the fights to be dirtier. I wanted Matt to get hit in the face. I wanted the car to get hit. I wanted to destroy the cars because that’s what happens in real life. Dan [Bradley] took that philosophy and just hit it out of the park, not just in the car chase, but in the rest of the action. You felt the impacts.”
[Note: James Bond is much grittier today, something Liman believes to be related to Witt’s departure from Bourne to work on Casino Royale. The anti-establishment, then, became the establishment.]
The impact is especially felt in the biggest, most complex action sequence of the film: the Moscow chase scene. “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, even in my career,” Bradley says. Liman calls it Bradley’s genius, and rightfully so. Upon discovering that Jason is not dead, Kirill sets out to finish him once and for all. He first follows Jason on foot, shooting him in the shoulder. Jason is hurt, and continues to get beat down as a suspenseful, seven-minute car chase ensues.
Bradley explains that the chase is successful, in large part, because it captures energy. “I wanted it to look like a guy desperately trying to get away,” Bradley says. It does. Jason continually gets hit, spinning out of control. He even launches his small, beat-up taxi into an eight-car boulevard, doing whatever he can to escape Kirill’s Mercedes. By the end, both cars are completely destroyed. Again: real, gritty, bloody, sweaty, and definitely not pristine.
As we continue to dissect these stunts 10 years after they first appeared onscreen, a couple questions remain: Will the action featured in The Bourne Supremacy continue to be remembered another 10 years from now, and 10 more after that? Inspired by and frequently compared to The French Connection, will those Bourne scenes reach similar iconic levels in cinematic history?
“I’m a little self-conscious likening anything I was involved with to The French Connection,” Liman admits. “I don’t want to sound egotistical because I’m very humble.” That being said, “If 10 years have gone by, that’s enough time to know that it’s here forever, like The French Connection.”