Matt Damon’s portrayal of the amnesiac American assassin, Jason Bourne, redefined the world of silver screen espionage. It caused the flagging Bond franchise to rethink its approach and was the instigator of a revolution in cinematic combat. Gone were the days of throwing big film punches and over-elaborate karate moves. This was not fighting to look good, this was fighting to survive. So how exactly has the fighting style of Bourne developed and evolved over the course of the four true Bourne films?
The Bourne Identity
The first time we see Bourne’s combat capabilities is when he takes down two armed Swiss police officers. He’s been asleep on a bench in a snow-covered park for some time, but despite his immediate disadvantage of being cold and exhausted Bourne takes down both officers with incredible efficiency.
He uses as few moves as possible, exploding upwards and utilising an officer’s baton as a non-lethal weapon. The sequence is sped up in post, which does detract a little from its impact, but we can see that Jason is more than capable of handling himself. What’s interesting to note is that compared to other fights in the series, this one feels more staged, with cuts on strikes, and the camera set back a fair distance.
In the US embassy, we really get to see what Bourne can do. He takes on three members of security, all of whom are armed, and puts them on the floor. He pushes the US marine into the line of fire of the pistol-wielding guard, demonstrating Bourne’s innate knowledge of how to use the opposition’s position, stance and size in his favour. This is fighting for self-defence, not to kill.
The fight in the Paris apartment (WITH WHO?) is the foundation for all future fights in the Bourne series. It could be argued that all Bourne’s previous battles have been somewhat superhero-esque, where he totally overwhelms his opponents with relative ease and we don’t really see what happens. Also, up until this fight, everyone has been trying to arrest Bourne, and so approach him with non-lethal intentions. This time, he is fighting an equal who is there to kill him and we get to see everything.
Bourne uses elements of Filipino Kali, Israeli Krav Maga, Bruce Lee’s Wing Chun and Jeet Kune Do, as well as boxing, during this fight, demonstrating his broad knowledge of fighting techniques. It is important to note that there are not many punches thrown in this fight, as one might expect from a typical action film of this era. They are used sparingly, with Bourne and his opponent preferring to use elbows and knees.
The direction in the fight is very smooth, with lots of tracking shots so that we can see all of Bourne’s abilities on screen. Compared to the later films where everything was shot handheld, Identity chooses to blend realism and stylised choreography, an important point in charting the evolution of combat in the Bourne series.
Some of the later action sequences in this film actually undermine the excellent work that director Doug Liman and Matt Damon had been doing up until them. Primarily, the final shoot-out wherein Bourne rides a dead body as it plummets down a stairwell, and shoots a CIA operator in the head simultaneously. That sequence may have stretched the bounds of credibility, but the later films really push the realism agenda that Bourne is remembered for.
The Bourne Identity set the standards for the future of fighting in the series; however there were some elements that were thankfully removed once Paul Greengrass took over the director’s chair.
The Bourne Supremacy
In the second film, and Paul Greengrass’ first foray into the Bourne universe, Jason Bourne begins with a much greater knowledge of what he is: a 30-million-dollar weapon designed to clandestinely assassinate America’s enemies.
Bourne is fully conscious of his abilities, showcasing them swiftly and brutally in a police interview room in Naples. It nicely mirrors the first fight of the first film, although this time Jason is even more confident. Before, Bourne was reactive in his fighting; this time it’s proactive, attacking at the moment that suits him best, ambushing his captors with very few strikes. There are very few cuts in the sequence, serving to emphasise just how efficient Bourne has become after the last film.
Bourne’s battle against another Treadstone operator in Berlin is arguably the best fight in the series and a clear example of how Greengrass’ arrival influenced the style of Bourne’s fight scenes. This is an all-out tussle, designed to be as realistic as possible all the way up to the absence of a score, the soundtrack provided by the thumps and smashes of Bourne and his opponent crashing into each other.
There is a clear evolution from the Bourne we saw in Identity; now the fighting style looks fast, frantic and, most importantly, realistic to the point of immersion. The handheld cinematography of Oliver Wood enables the free-flowing style of Bourne to be displayed in the best possible way, and just like the film’s earlier battle there are no cutaways to show the impact of his hits. Instead, it’s all kept in frame, emphasising the speed and ferocity of Bourne and his attacker’s movements.
While it may be a tad confusing as it’s so close, this actually makes the combat better. The brutal, unglamorous close-quarter battles that Bourne is caught up in really put the viewer at the centre of Bourne’s battered world. Supremacy makes it clear that in terms of how Bourne fights, he has two distinct approaches.
The first is speed and efficiency, when Jason needs to get away as fast as possible, normally from unwitting law enforcement; the second is used when Bourne is faced with opponents of equal ability. He strikes and counter-strikes to the point that his exhausted opponent makes a minuscule mistake, whereupon Bourne capitalises and exploits. It is interesting to note that, of the six Treadstone operatives Bourne faces in the entire series, three of them are killed by strangulation. One dies from being shot, another from falling out of a window and Bourne never even fights the sixth.
The Bourne Ultimatum
The third act in the Bourne series brings Jason even closer to his past, dovetailing directly with the events of The Bourne Supremacy. This is a fully operational Bourne with combat skills as sharp as ever. The film starts with him taking out one of two Moscow police officers with only two strikes, and leaving the other untouched, in a moment of interesting humanity.
The real standout fight in the film is Jason’s battle against a rival Treadstone agent, Desh, which takes place in an apartment in Tangiers, Morocco. Here, for the first time in the series, Bourne is pitted against a younger, more athletic Treadstone operative. We see Bourne use a number of holds, elbow strikes, wrist locks, disarms, and his aforementioned martial art styles, but there are some new elements thrown in. Both Jason and Desh employ moves taken from the Brazilian martial art of capoeira, namely leg sweeps and kicks, and Desh even uses a somewhat spectacular flip to disengage himself from a wrist lock.
Once again, Bourne finds himself in close confines in a residential environment, having to use walls and furniture to his advantage. There is nothing spectacular or stylised about this fight, it’s purely for survival. Bourne knows he has to kill this opponent – notable as he actually kills very few people in the series.
It’s good to see the part Nicky Parsons plays in this fight, fishhooking Desh off Bourne to give him some breathing space and prevent his strangulation. It’s a marked change from how women in films usually take on more superior foes. It actually works, pulling Desh’s head away from Bourne, before he counters and kicks her to the ground.
The way the fight is shot is the most effective of all the handheld camera fights. It’s a clear development from the Berlin fight in Supremacy where it can be challenging to tell what is happening as the camera moves so much. Greengrass has evolved the fights to balance the talents of his actors, without sacrificing realism for spectacle as happened in Identity.
The realism is spectacle in and of itself, making audiences wince and root for Bourne with every thump and smash and snap. We actually see Jason visibly exhausted at the end of this fight. It has taken a huge amount out of him to overcome this equally capable and, occasionally, better opponent. However, Bourne has won out through sheer, brutal efficiency, demonstrating his abilities and skills honed through years on the run.
Ultimatum marks the end of the initial Bourne story, defeating the traces of Treadstone and Blackbriar. We have seen how not only the fighting style has evolved, but how the films have developed as well. With the arrival of Jason Bourne, it will be fascinating to see the further evolution of the character and how he takes on new threats in a world he swam away from at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum.