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Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in a fight scene from The Bourne Ultimatum movie
Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum 
Image: Universal Pictures via Polygon

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The Bourne trilogy’s notorious shaky-cam action is better than anyone else’s

The many, many imitators never really used it right

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The Bourne franchise is known for quick-cut, shaky-cam action, but there’s less than six minutes of hand-to-hand combat across Doug Liman’s 2002 series-launcher The Bourne Identity, and Paul Greengrass’ sequels, 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy and 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum. Still, the impressionistic fight aesthetic spawned so many imitators that it became Hollywood’s lingua franca across the action spectrum, employed by everything from the macho ’80s throwback Expendables series to Disney superhero fare like Captain America: Civil War. The Taken films even applied it to Liam Neeson jumping a fence.

The dizzying, choppy Bourne fight style has its pros and cons. Moviegoers might argue that it poisoned the American action well, making too many movie fights incomprehensible and even nauseating. But its deployment in the Bourne series stands apart from the way its successors use it. From a technical standpoint, each Bourne sequence is more precise than the imitation versions, down to the vital difference of a handful of frames. But more importantly, the aesthetic is perfectly in tune with the series’ themes and its character-centric drama — which isn’t often true when other movies copy the style.

The template for the Bourne series’ action is set 11 minutes into The Bourne Identity, when a pair of Zürich policemen approach amnesiac agent Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). Bourne, who doesn’t even know his own name at this point, is surprised when he’s able to respond to the cops in fluent German, and he exhibits just as much fluency (and just as much surprise) when he disarms them instantaneously. The “fight” lasts a mere eight seconds, about as long as the scene at the American embassy 10 minutes later, when he similarly incapacitates a group of security guards. In either case, his instincts take over, and his muscle memory carries him through each sequence with brutal efficiency.

A handful of these disarming scenes, where Bourne breaks into a brief fury of martial arts to diffuse the situation, are littered throughout the trilogy. Notably, both these initial scenes in Identity end with a gun in Bourne’s hand, and he disposes of it each time. Between the two sequences, he even retraces his steps to a safety deposit box filled with money, passports, and a firearm. He takes everything except the gun.

Bourne fights Jarda in Bourne Supremacy Image: Universal Pictures

Embedded deep in Bourne’s psyche is the drive for violence, drilled into him by Treadstone, a brutal CIA enhancement program. With his conscious memories wiped clean by head trauma, all that’s left is a man whose body has been honed for killing, but whose conscious mind now battles against that instinct, through some innate, unbroken goodness. While Jason Bourne could probably kill a man with his bare hands — he eventually does in the sequels, when he’s left with no other option — each of the trilogy’s 11 fight scenes, no matter how brief, has him attempting to disarm or discombobulate an attacker (or several). And while he gains more control of his body with each fight, the series’ aesthetic feels like Bourne’s own physiology made manifest, with actions unfolding faster than the speed of thought.

The turn of the century brought along new avenues for Hollywood action, with films like 1999’s The Matrix — another mind-body exploration in the internet age — drawing heavily from Hong Kong cinema. While martial arts films usually feature lightning-quick motions like the Bourne trilogy fights (for instance, the 2000 classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), their presentation involves longer takes and wider shots, offering both greater spatial clarity and a more complete view of the choreography. Generally speaking, that’s a good thing: the YouTube channel “Every Frame A Painting” lays out the pros perfectly in the video Jackie Chan — How to Do Action Comedy, which even discusses the nature of editing in Chan’s films. When those movies cut on the action beats, the filmmakers directors repeat the first few frames of the action between shots for greater emphasis, letting viewers feel each impact action in the process. Most modern Hollywood films, by contrast, tend to cut around the impact, so the blows feel weightless in comparison. Films like Taken 2, and other ostensible Bourne descendants, tend to fall into this trap and combine their tightly framed, constantly moving shots with cuts that obscure the “oomph” of a given kick or punch. The Bourne films, however, compress time and space not by cutting around impacts, but cutting to each impact sooner.

In The Bourne Supremacy, when a CIA agent draws his gun and attempts to apprehend Bourne in Naples, the action of Bourne reaching for the agent’s arm is repeated between shots. You probably won’t notice unless you slow it down, or pause it and use the comma and period keys on YouTube to watch it frame by frame, but this brief doubling-up of footage helps the gesture register subconsciously. After that, the action jump-cuts from Bourne grabbing the agent’s wrist to a few frames later, when his punch is about to connect. After it lands, the shot jumps again, from Bourne pulling the agent’s gun from his hand to several frames later, as he turns to punch a nearby security guard. The cuts not only preserve the actual impact, they also use the bare minimum amount of footage necessary to imply the surrounding actions between each hit, as Bourne disarms the agent. It’s a 50-frame series of events augmented, and clarified, by exaggerated sound.

The action isn’t homogenized, either. While this quick-cut technique reappears in disarming scenes, it’s applied more selectively when Bourne engages agents with similar training. During several of these fights — against Castel (Nicky Naude) in Identity and Jarda (Marton Csokas) in Supremacy — the viewers are shown the totality of each opponent’s movement, while the film jumps from action to action for Bourne. The actors operate at the same speed, but Bourne feels faster, and is at a distinct advantage. (It helps that Jarda’s hands are literally tied.) However, Bourne’s fight against Desh (Joey Ansah) in Ultimatum, perhaps the most memorable in the series, sees both men trading the upper hand, a dynamic reflected through cuts.

The scene has a distinct ebb and flow, as the use of jump cuts oscillates between characters. At first, it cuts around Bourne’s movements as usual, while preserving his strikes, while Desh’s complete punches feel far slower in comparison. After Desh fights off Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), though, his speed begins to match Bourne’s. There’s a brief pause, during which he flips around to break Bourne’s wristlock — a literal turning point! — and actually has more momentum than Bourne for a few brief moments. A few of Bourne’s kicks play out at regular human speed before the scene cuts swiftly from Desh throwing Bourne through a table to nearly striking him with a candlestick. (It’s accompanied by an echoing “clang” — many of the series’ quick cuts work because of the way their sound evokes action and feeling.) The fight then goes back and forth a few times, with neither man having the advantage. Their bodies remain interlocked, and they barely move. Both men trade swift blows, until Bourne is forced to resort to lethal tactics, and chokes Desh to death. The fight lasts less than a hundred seconds, but it tells an entire story through editing.

The technical acumen of the series’ editors — Saar Klein in Identity, Christopher Rouse and Richard Pearson in Supremacy, and Rouse alone in Ultimatum — isn’t the only reason the series’ fights stand out. Thematically, the trilogy’s concerns became more and more about the War on Terror with each passing film, an idea reflected in the filmmaking. The Bourne Identity was filmed before Sept. 11th, 2001, and though producers insisted on reshoots in the event’s aftermath to avoid vilifying the CIA, Damon and director Doug Liman lobbied to preserve the original ending, where CIA Deputy Director Abott (Brian Cox) initiates Treadstone’s follow-up program, Blackbriar — which was received well by test audiences. It sets the stage for Greengrass to pick up where things left off.

Supremacy changes the series’ aesthetics in ways that feel stark and immediate, with everything from action scenes to planning sequences in the CIA’s operations rooms emphasized through a more vérité handheld style. Hollywood was no stranger to this approach — Steven Spielberg famously used it on 1998’s Saving Private Ryan — but the constant use of crash-zooms in Bourne Supremacy felt novel, like a fixture of the digital age. 2005’s The Office used these sudden punch-ins to ape the aesthetic of reality television, while The Bourne Supremacy employed them for a similar reason: to evoke the paranoia of constant surveillance.

Supremacy and Ultimatum also use longer telephoto lenses, which compress space and capture details from further away. These longer lenses don’t just make the fights feel more chaotic, as the camera needs to move faster to keep subjects in frame — they make them feel voyeuristic too. The camera draws more attention to itself in Greengrass’ films, even though all three entries share the same cinematographer, Oliver Wood. The constant movement, zoom-ins, and soft focus evoke the feeling of following and peering in on people’s lives from afar. Surveillance is a key part of the series, and it becomes more intrinsic to the CIA’s operations in the sequels, which were written and filmed after the Patriot Act granted increased surveillance powers to the U.S. government.

This overarching aesthetic adds a sense of volatility to the fight scenes, creating an unstable, kinetic frame that whips and jitters to keep up with the details of the action. The car chases feel similarly volatile, though what separates them from their haphazard imitators (say, the 2008 Bond film Quantum of Solace) is the effort Greengrass and company put into grounding the chaos in human perspectives. Where the chase in Quantum of Solace featured indistinguishable black cars, Jason Bourne stands out during the nondescript motorcades in Supremacy and Ultimatum, since he drives a taxi and police car, respectively. Even in moments of utter confusion, the color scheme is enough to spatially differentiate hero from villain. There’s a method to the madness.

In addition to the aesthetic evocations of the War on Terror era, the first film’s story of a man bound by violence takes on greater meaning in the sequels, which were made after America’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Jason Bourne is constantly at odds with his own violent instincts, which were drilled into him by an organization who would have him believe that any actions, even violent ones, are permissible to protect American lives. Ultimatum even ends with Bourne asking rival Blackbriar assassin Paz (Édgar Ramírez) if he knows why he’s supposed to kill Bourne. (“Look what they made you give,” Bourne says, echoing Clive Owen’s dying words in Identity.)

Matt Damon with a gun in The Bourne Identity Photo: Universal Studios

Treadstone personnel keep reminding Bourne, throughout the series, that he’s a killer and he always will be. To them, he’s a dehumanized asset of the U.S. government, one of several agents molded into unquestioning killing machines, even at the cost of side effects like “depression, anger, and compulsive behaviors” — not unlike real U.S. soldiers left to suffer mentally and emotionally after being sent to war.

This wiring forms the basis of Bourne’s physicality throughout the series, a propensity for violence so potent that it feels like second nature, even once he’s lost his memory. The series’ blurred hand-to-hand combat is occasionally indulgent, but it functions as a constant reminder of this identity, and of a post-2001 geopolitical landscape where the instincts to respond with lethal force are constantly at the forefront of western political thought.

Since the Bourne trilogy ended, Hollywood has used and abused the quick-cuts-and-shaky-cam approach to no end. It’s shown up in everything from escapist children’s fantasy like G.I. Joe: Retaliation to the grittier, more realistic action films of Olivier Megaton. (Between Transporter 3, Colombiana, and the Taken sequels, Megaton may be the single biggest perpetrator since 2008.) And yet none of these films ever justified aping the aesthetic. Rather than an extension of character or tone, the style simply became an expected flourish.

That fad has begun to fade. More recent action films like Ava, The Old Guard, Birds of Prey, and the John Wick trilogy favor wider shots and spatial clarity, and with the Lana Wachowski-directed Matrix 4 reportedly arriving later this year, the trend is likely to continue. But even if the Bourne trilogy’s action style is finally left in the past, the series remains far more than an incidental trendsetter. Everyone copied Bourne’s fight scenes because they looked cool, but many seem to have missed why they actually worked: they were the perfect extension of Jason Bourne’s story, and the era to which he belongs.