Daily Dojo

Friday Fight Scene(s) Black Friday Special - Jason Bourne

“A real fight is just as Thomas Hobbes described life itself, ‘Nasty, brutish and short.’”

The above quote comes from my friend Joshua P, a martial artist and writer I’ve known for years (way back from Iowa days, yo), and it’s the perfect line to describe the fights in the Jason Bourne series.

I think it may be easy to forget now, but the Jason Bourne movies were a bit of a mini-revolution in terms of action and thriller movies, particularly the first one, a smart, very old school spy movie with a modern cutting edge brutality and morality to them.

That first film had little expectations when it was released ten years ago (yep, TEN YEARS ago) as that it was a remake of a television movie starring Richard Chamberlain (this is true, mind you) from an old series of books about a spy, a genre that was thought by some to be played out.

Jason Bourne showed us this was far from true, and it opened and the whole world was thrilled.

What’s interesting is that the series has had two different directors, but one primary writer (who changed nearly everything from the source material for the first film), the accomplished Tony Gilroy (with help from others in the third, if I recall) and yet the tone and challenge of each film has stayed cool and consistent (note, we’re only covering the Jason Bourne movies, not the last one without Jason).

There’s a lot that can be said about the smarts that went into each, but for our purposes we’re going to look at specific fight scenes in each of the three and how they set the bar high and influenced every movie that came after it. It’s fair to say that Daniel Craig’s James Bond comes from these movies.

Bear in mind, a lot of hand to hand fights in films before Bourne tended to be over-stylized, either as Kung Fu cinema dance wise, or just over-choragraphed mayhem via Van Damme and Stallone where muscles and wisecracks won the day. Not so with Jason Bourne, who didn’t waste time… if he could wipe out a guy with one blow, he did. That was consistent throughout the Bourne films.

As my friend Joshua P. says about them: “I just think they are the best cinematic representation (that I’ve seen) of what a real fight to the death between two trained fighters would look like. Lots of environmental weapons, lots of close combat, and messy, legs and arms everywhere, fingers in eyes, biting, etc. Also they don’t go on very long (and a fight with less cinematic concern would probably be even shorter).”

I completely agree. The fights themselves are mostly rooted in Krav Maga, a brutal and efficient combat system, with a mix of grappling and knife-fighting thrown in.

Now, what’s fascinating not only from a fighting POV but also from a writing POV, in the first film, fighting is one way Jason finds out who he is, check out this quick clip when he’s rousted by cops:

Jason doesn’t know who he is, and more importantly, what he is, and this fast fight (and it was over as fast as it started) was both a thrilling and frightening discovery, for him and for us.

Now a standard pattern for the Bourne movies that I’ve been able to see is that he has a small fight (like the above) then a another one (in BI, it’s the quick fight at the embassy) and then he faces off against one of his own. Here is that scene in The Bourne Identity.

Big face off:

Notice that Bourne KNOWS this guy is like him, he just somehow knows it, they fight the same, think the same, both animals fighting for survival. But what Bourne doesn’t know is how far it goes, but he finds out when Blondie throws himself out the window and is shocked when it happens. That’s who he is, and it’s shocking.

The fight itself is a classical piece of brutal poetry, from the hands and feet and the footwork, these are two professionals, and they’re not talking shit, they’re not making quips or even trying to play fair. The goal is to kill the other and both know it. No one is playing here.

Generally speaking, the Bourne movies follow a now familiar pattern, brutal fight scenes, a great chase scene or two, then end with a gun battle and a moment of retrospection, as that each film is really about Bourne finding out who he is and confronting that ugly truth. We see this in every one.

But by far the most exciting fights take place when Bourne faces off against one of his own, as in the above clip and also in the next film, The Bourne Supremacy.

What’s interesting about this scene is that we now have a different director, Paul Greengrass, a specialist in what’s known as “shaky-cam” style filmmaking, it’s nearly documentary, gives you the impression that you’re right in the middle of the fight. There’s no classical framing (as in the previous film fight) or music (note, the music doesn’t come in until after the man is killed)… all we hear are the blows and the grunts and breathing of the combatants. if anything, it’s even more brutal and real than the first one, and it works because that’s who Bourne is.

Special note of the use of environmental weapons, rolled up magazine, lamp cords, the quick transition from striking to grappling. Greengrass actually took the intent of the first film and one-upped it. it’s brilliant and completely works.

The next film and fight we’ll examine is The Bourne Ultimatum, his fight against Desh. This is one of my favorites.

What’s cool about this scene is that it’s a chase scene and fight scene, Desh is tracking Julia to kill her, has her trapped in a building, and Jason is running on rooftops to save her.

Notice, again, how the music stops once he leaps through the window and the fight begins.

Again we have only the blows and the groans, and it’s even more of a harsh battle than the first two we just watched; Julia jumps on Desh, clawing and scratching, and he just bats her off. This guy is a stone cold killer and smart, too, as we witnessed earlier in the film with the bomb trick.

They use everything that apartment against each other, candlesticks and books and towels, and when it’s done, we, like Bourne, don’t necessarily feel glad that Desh is dead, just relieved… death is not glorified here, if anything it’s ugly and tragic and we’re supposed to feel that way about the men he kills. This is fighting non-glorified, but with purpose, and it’s one reason why these films were so successful, and why others wanted to emulate it.

Obviously there’s much more to the Bourne movies than the fight scenes (they have many other things going for them) but to look at these scenes in a micro level, we can see that they don’t exist SOLELY as set pieces, they’re not in the movie JUST to have a fight scene, each scene has a distinct purpose to it, as I mentioned before, Jason’s on a mission to find and confront who he was, he’s a battle with his past, per se, and his past is in a battle with him, to stop and eliminate him.

That’s primal stuff, and so they’re not just scenes about kicks, punches and chokes, but scenes about a character both discovering something about himself and making reparations for it… to me, that’s why the film series was so successful, and these scenes each contain those specific elements, in fact, they have to happen… and that’s why they all work.

Leave a Reply