Fourteen years after his super-spy incarnation got his first outing, Matt Damon is back where he belongs, writes Ashleigh Wilson
It’s fitting that the opening scenes of Jason Bourne revolve around boxing. Bourne, the former CIA assassin played by Matt Damon, is somewhere in Greece, fighting in bare-knuckle bouts and making light work of his opponents. He doesn’t seem especially interested in what he’s doing, but he packs a serious punch and the other guys don’t stand a chance. All this puts Damon in familiar territory since he has been boxing for as long as he has been Bourne.
Damon began training almost two decades ago, back when he was preparing for the first Bourne film, The Bourne Identity. Doug Liman, the director, wanted the main character to carry himself in a very specific way: he wanted him to walk like a boxer. Damon can still recall Liman explaining the idea in the months leading up to filming, how it was about more than just making realistic fight scenes: “There’s this real economy of movement, there’s a perfect balance, they’re on their front foot, there’s just something about the way those guys walk.”
For his new film Damon, 45, certainly looks the part. He has beefed up in a big way, fronting a sixpack courtesy of a strict diet and hundreds of “indulgent” hours spent in the gym. He gives credit to Liman for suggesting boxing as a way of manipulating his body in the first place. “It did change the way I moved and stood in space,” he says. “And then I kept doing it because I actually really liked it.”
A character originally created by Robert Ludlum, Jason Bourne remains Damon’s most enduring role. The action franchise has held its own over 14 years as the spy gradually regained his memory: The Bourne Identity was released in 2002, followed by The Bourne Supremacy in 2004 and The Bourne Ultimatum three years later. The Bourne Legacy came out in 2012, starring Jeremy Renner as another elite spy, but mentioned Bourne only in passing. Damon has since admitted he felt a little envious to have not been involved in that one.
In recent weeks Damon been travelling the world promoting the latest chapter in the fran- chise, charming reporters and fans from Sydney and Seoul to London and beyond. His reputation precedes him: he has become known as the nice guy of Hollywood, as his co-star, Alicia Vikander, was asked so often to confirm. It helps that his private life rarely gets the tabloid treatment: he married a “civilian”, a former bartender named Luciana Barroso; they have three daughters plus a daughter from her previous marriage. And in person he comes across as oddly unassuming, a chatty Boston Celtics fan chewing gum who just happens to be Hollywood royalty.
Speaking to Review the morning after the film’s premiere in Sydney, where he posed patiently for selfies with delirious fans, he says he always tries to “compartmentalise” the celebrity side of the job. At the premiere, he had given a short interview in front of the screen before walking to his seat at the back of the cinema, followed at every step by eyes and smartphones. It has been 18 years since Damon won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting with his friend Ben Affleck — does it ever seem any less weird?
“No, not at all,” he says. “They go in this bucket of just bizarre surreal experiences that don’t really have any bearing on my regular life. So that event was a Jason Bourne event. So when I walk up, everyone’s taking pictures of me, but I can go into a movie theatre with my kids and walk up the same aisle and see Zootopia and nobody’s going to take their camera out. It’s completely surreal. But … I’m not internalising it, thinking this is totally fine.”
Damon is particularly invested in Jason Bourne, having signed on as a producer for the first time in the series. His return as Bourne depended on the involvement of director Paul Greengrass, who also directed Supremacy and Ultimatum. It was also, he says, about satisfying a hungry fan base that wanted more. It seems safe to assume Jason Bourne will perform better at the box office than other high-profile sequels released this year. And while Damon has enjoyed plenty of memorable parts through the years — from The Departed and Invictus to True Grit, Behind the Candelabra and The Martian — he readily admits he missed playing Bourne.
“Definitely. I mean, every time Paul and I would talk I would bring it up,” he says. “I wanted it to happen. I really wanted to make another Jason Bourne movie. I loved the character. But it took us a long time because we wanted the world to change enough, because the first three were very much about the Bush years and the war on terror. They were of their time. We needed to have something that was of this time.”
Much has changed since Damon last appeared as Bourne. His character is no longer trying to piece together his identity, a “malfunctioning $30 million weapon” pursued by shadowy forces at the CIA. And he no longer suffers from amnesia, which means a fundamental shift in the narrative drive. Bourne has regained his memory but lost his purpose — hence the street fights for cash. When he’s drawn back into his old world, chasing answers from the CIA, he finds himself in a world where WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden have changed the game. And it’s in this way the film sculpts itself deliberately on contemporary life; Snowden, for instance, is name-checked early on.
But it’s still a Bourne film, which means there’s still that visceral physicality that has been there from the start. The fight scenes are scrappy and brutal. Bourne grapples at close range with his enemies, turning anything around him into a weapon: a newspaper, a taxi, a pen, a vodka bottle, a book. More than once he drives against traffic to escape pursuers. “That’s kind of the fun,” Damon says, “how fast his mind’s working given whatever’s around him.”
The Bourne aesthetic, as it were, has since made its way into other releases that cover similar ground. The Bourne Identity came out 14 years ago, the same year that Pierce Brosnan played James Bond in Die Another Day, testing
Matt Damon; meeting fans in Seoul, top left; the actor beefed up for his latest outing as Bourne, below