Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Jason Bourne Edition - The Part-Time Critic

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Jason Bourne Edition

*Last Updated 4/11/2022 

The Jason Bourne franchise was a burst of fresh air in 2002 when it brought a new feeling of focus and realism to the action genre that had begun to be increasingly dominated by Die Hard ripoffs, special effect extravaganzas, a Bond stuck in goofier and goofier set pieces, and mostly failed attempts to crossover Hong Kong action into America. I now think of the Bourne films as the standard setter for the urban hybrid chase/fight (check out my top four picks). Although the Bourne series would eventually become known as the trendsetter when it came to quick edits and shaky cam (this didn't really happen until Paul Greengrass took over on The Bourne Supremacy), I felt it never deserved this criticism and isn't responsible for the negative use of those elements in lesser and later films. 

You see, action "styles" are fairly neutral things - they are simply tools for getting the job done. You can use a hammer correctly and you can use a hammer incorrectly. Action scenes are similar in that you can use a style well or horribly. I generally prefer action sequences that favor wide shots that allow the athleticism / spectacle of whatever is going to be spatially understood and have a clear geographical context. However, using this style poorly can result in a very flat and boring sequence - it's not the right tool for everything. The "shaky cam" style (as it would come to be known) requires a smart use and implementation and I think Greengrass is still the best user of this method - this series being the example. However, poor use of this style - like this famous overedited sequence from Taken 3 - is not his fault. 

For those interested in knowing before you get into the ratings, here's how I would rank the current five films in the franchise:

5. The Bourne Legacy (C+) 2012
4. Jason Bourne (C+) 2016
3. The Bourne Ultimatum (C+) 2007
2. The Bourne Identity (A) 2002
1. The Bourne Supremacy (A+) 2004

Outside of the first two entries, I think the stories have greatly suffered, even if there style continues to provide engaging moments and actions sequences. If the franchise ends at 5, it will have a strong legacy. The style of the Bourne series injected new life into action films and has given us some of the best contemporary fight sequences and chases of all-time. Enjoy.

All Bourne Action Scenes Graded & Ranked

GRADE: C
19. “Jason Bourne takes out Treadstone in Paris” -The Bourne Identity (2002)
- Commentary: While this sequence works dramatically, I’d say it is the first time an action scene kinda disappoints in this series. The consulate escape, pen fight, paris car chase, and shootout in the woods all demonstrated a unique aspect of Bourne’s skills. As an action climax, this fails. It doesn’t demonstrate a new ability or even top anything that’s come before. That doesn’t mean it’s bad – it’s just a pretty typical fight/shootout with an over the top stunt (using a dead body to break a fall down a stairwell) that really doesn’t belong in the franchise. Thankfully, Greengrass seems to have chosen to let that “crazy stunt” template die with this sequence.

GRADE: C+
18. "Snowy Strategy: Cross vs. Drones & Wolves" -The Bourne Legacy (2012)
- Commentary: A simple sequence that shows off the intelligence of Aaron Cross here. He is being tracked by wolves and a government drone looking to take him out. He captures a wolf in a trap, wrestles it and sticks his GPS tracker inside the mouth of the wolf. The drone ultimately takes out the wolf instead of Aaron. Simple, but effective.

17. "Escaping a Manilla Pill Factory" -The Bourne Legacy (2012)
- Commentary: The Bourne series became well-known for its intense foot chase sequences spiked with moments of fighting. Without Greengrass at the helm, this sequence feels more like a sub-par copy of that trope rather than the genuine article. Still, it's a sequence worth a watch.

GRADE: B-
16. “Assassin Finds Bourne in Goa” -The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
- Commentary: Hiding out in Goa, India – Bourne spots a suspicious man (who is there to assassinate him) in town. He immediately feels this is his past reaching out to get him. He races to get to Marie before the mysterious man. He picks her up, but the assassin notices them and a chase ensues. The car chase through the town is hectic and choppy making great use of the dirt alleys and heavy foliage of the location. As they approach a major bridge the assassin takes a sniper shot at Marie and takes her out. The car crashes into the river and Marie dies. Bourne barely escapes. It’s a jarring scene that’s meant to be more than just an action set piece, it's meant to throw Bourne’s existence into sudden drama and conflict. It accomplishes this part extremely well.

15. “Fighting the Asset in Vegas” -Jason Bourne (2016)
- Commentary: Coming at the end of the final film in the franchise - this decent fight against Vincent Cassel just underwhelms when put next to its franchise brethren. This fight takes place in a pretty non-descript sewer area and features usual object fighting (it's a pot and wire this time), but this feels like a fight that could've come from any number of the Bourne-imitation films that came out in its wake. Standalone - it's serviceable, but as a finale - it's weak.

14. House Shootout: Cross Saves Shearing From Agents" -The Bourne Legacy (2012)
- Commentary: CIA agents arrive at Shearing's home (Rachel Weisz) and their job is to ultimately make it look like she committed suicide. Aaron Cross arrives and gums up the works. Cross shows off some tactical fighting skills, but the big open home allows him a chance to retreat and hide as well. He makes it to a basement where he sets a few traps for agents, then makes his way to help out Shearing. It's a decent little shootout showing more of Aaron's skills - but there's nothing that remarkable or special here.

13. “Bourne vs the Professor: Shotgun in the Woods” -The Bourne Identity (2002)
- Commentary: This assassin face-off is a nice little breath of fresh air that’s more about positioning than about brute force. Bourne is staying at Marie’s relatives house and after the kids come back in the morning saying the dogs are not around Bourne knows something is up. After guessing at the assassin’s position, he grabs a shotgun and shoots a propane tank to distract the assassin (Clive Owen) with a large explosion. This gives Bourne the cover to take better ground. He confidently makes his way out into the woods to flank. When he’s confident the assassin has taken a position in some tall grass he fires to scatter the birds and give even more cover. Ultimately, Owen is outmatched and is seen moving positions, and gets gunned down. It’s a nice cat and mouse game that makes Bourne look able to beat others not just with brute force but with intelligence.

12. “Escaping the American Consulate” -The Bourne Identity (2002)
- Commentary: Here’s a sequence that initially demonstrated the different action approach this series would take and further sequels would add upon. Bourne, who at this point is just realizing he has a particular set of skills, is at the American consulate and is about to be arrested. The action here is how he can escape without any casualties. We get a burst or two of some nice tactical fighting, but the real feature here is the intelligence with which Bourne grabs a security radio, a building layout map off the wall, and then formulates an escape plan. Alongside the security forces trying to find him, some quick editing, and a driving soundtrack – this becomes a new type of action scene that would only get better in the successive films.

11. “Chase in New York: Bourne vs Paz” -The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
- Commentary: This is a good sequence…it’s not a bad one…yet I can’t help but be disappointed by it. You see, the car chase in Paris from the first movie is an old-school epic and the car chase in Moscow is one of my all-time favorites. When I heard the trilogy was going to feature a car chase in New York – my mind raced with the possibilities. What we get here is…a cool stunt off a parking complex, a decent chase through some New York streets playing bumper cars, and an impressive car wreck as the culmination. That sounds great, but it just never quite clicks like the others – I think because the pacing of the film makes this just feel like another beat rather than a major beat. Whatever it is, its something that really pales in comparison with its peers in the series.

GRADE: B
10. “Berlin Foot Chase: Hotel to the Train” -The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
Commentary: This is a great example of how the Bourne series used action sequences to help unveil exposition, rather than just counting on slow dramatic scenes to do it. Bourne visits a hotel where he believes he may have done an operation in his past. As he is exploring and discovering his past (dramatic flashbacks help the significance of the moment a lot here), the authorities are on to him and closing in. Once the authorities swarm in the chase is on and like the trend established in the consulate scene from the first movie – these chases are more about intelligence and small bursts of action than they are on pure spectacle. The editing style supports this by often throwing 3-4 edits of close-up movement followed by a wider shot (establishing space and geography) held just a bit longer. The iconic driving score backing this works perfectly. This pattern does an excellent job of conveying the intensity and split-second choices that need to be made to escape authorities. Bourne here climbs alongside of the building, escapes across rooftops and onto the street where cops pick him up and per the tradition he must quickly glance at a subway tram schedule and he is off to try and outwit them, which he does over a tram station and bridge.

9. “Athens Riot & Motorcycle Chase” -Jason Bourne (2016)
- Commentary: Not perfectly, but this sequence does a good job recapturing and combining the magic of the classic surveillance and chase sequences of the previous entries into the franchise. A bit sloppy and convoluted, but its hard to deny the spectacle, visuals, and driving energy of this sequence.

GRADE: B+
8. “Bourne Protecting Ross at Waterloo Station” -The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
- Commentary: o Bourne’s attempt to meet with a British journalist in Waterloo station is crashed by the CIA who want to make sure Bourne cannot share any scandalous dirt. This sequence represents the pinnacle “countering surveillance” sequence in the series. It’s the Alexanderplatz sequence from Bourne Supremacy on steroids. Bourne, with all his knowledge, works to keep the British journalist away from CIA cameras and grab teams. As he subtly guides the journalist through a phone he planted on him, he also has to lure CIA grab teams into corridors where he can take them out. The camerawork, sharp editing, and classic building score combine perfectly here with the structured action to make a basic surveillance sequence into something gripping.

7. "Manilla Maze: Foot & Motorcycle Chase Thru the City" -The Bourne Legacy (2012)
- Commentary: Continuing the MO from The Bourne Ultimatium’s Tangiers sequence, this finale set piece begins with an extended foot chase through and over the slums of Manilla. It’s not as exciting as I’d like, but it does ramp up nicely and get punctuated by a couple nice fight moments. The sequence really picks up when Renning and Weisz hop on a motorcycle and get chased through the city – this is the highlight here. It’s too bad that the climax doesn’t quite work with a wonky CGI stunt – otherwise this would raise a slot.

6. “Swat Tank Chase in Vegas” -Jason Bourne (2016)
- Commentary: After a somewhat underwhelming New York city car chase in the previous film, Greengrass and Damon come back with a classic Vegas chase on the strip. Bourne, in a Dodge Challenger, is chasing Vincent Cassel who has commandeered a SWAT armored vehicle. This sequence might be fairly linear, but they really rack up the damage - at one point the armored vehicle just plows into two lanes of cars in traffic to incredible results. The chase moves from the strip to a parking lot and back to the strip for a couple of more stunts. Lots of strong practical stunt work in an age where everyone else is using CGI.

GRADE: A-
5. “The Pen Fight” -The Bourne Identity (2002)
- Commentary: Inside a nice Paris apartment, Marie goes to freshen up and Bourne begins to search for clues to his identity by making some calls and keeping notes on a pad. The scene feels eerie and sets up the anticipation of a conflict well. To Bourne’s surprise (and the viewers), a CIA assassin bursts through a glass panel in the apartment and a fight ensues. The fight lasts barely a minute and a half, but it makes a huge impression on the viewer. Matt Damon isn’t the most athletic or natural fighter in the world, but he does sell the fights well with confidence and the creatives have done a fantastic job giving him a very basic and tactical fight style. The editing here emphasizes some quick cuts mixed in with nice wide shots every now and then giving the impression of ability amidst the intensity. The signature moment in the fight is when Bourne backs up on his table and grabs a ball point pen and uses it effectively in the fight. Not a cinematic kung fu masterpiece, but in the genre of grounded spy fighting with a little bit of flash thrown in – it works and it works incredibly well.

4. “Munich Magazine Fight” -The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
- Commentary: I know that I will get a lot of people questioning my judgment by rating this fight this high, but I don’t care, I just love this fight. Many will say this fight is a perfect example of the overuse of “shaky cam” and quick editing and under certain conditions, I might agree. However, to put that criticism on THIS fight is to actually miss the entire point. This is all about two equally matched men, unsure about each other, doing mental and physical battle. This isn't about flashy fighting, this is about men trying to take control of the other. Greengrass, the director, is trying to ground Bourne's fighting with another agent as much as possible, while retaining a cinematic flare. Bourne arrives at the Munich home of another Treadstone operative played by Martin Csokas. When Csokas arrives he knows something is up and after pulling a gun from the fridge, realizes that Bourne has already emptied. He stays calm and begins approaching him as Bourne motions for him to get his hands cuffed in plastic rings. Csokas talks calmy and confidently moves forward as Bourne backs up. I LOVE the cat and mouse, back and forth, you can tell is happening from these operatives in these games. It sets an uneasy tone and marks Csokas as a potential equal for Bourne. Once Csokas plays his hand to distract Bourne, the fight is on. I don’t think you can really enjoy this fight with enjoying three key things about it. First, how the intellectual cat and mouse turns into an athletic cat and mouse game. The fighting here isn’t about flashy martial arts, but about getting the practical upper hand – so anything at their disposal is fair game. Oh, you got a knife, I’ll grab this…magazine? Second, how the costume design and art direction of the apartment come together to turn Bourne and Csokas into black figures essentially silhouetted among the modern white vibe of the apartment. There are moments here when the guys wrestle against the blinds that are breathtaking in my opinion. Third, how the editing/camera work together to present a fight that’s for three quarters is about an intense struggle and for one quarter is about big and pleasing movies. All of these combine to make a sudden fight scene that goes back and forth and pops with moments of dazzling visuals and violence, but always feels grounded. The “shaky cam” editing is essentially throwing four or so quick edits at you but then one or two longer (relatively) wider shots to establish a bigger move/geography, then right back at the quick edits. This technique is used to great effect later in the Berlin chase as well. My favorite moment here is Bourne’s use of a rolled up magazine (continuing the tradition of making everyday objects violent begun in the first film). There’s a moment, one of those longer edited shots, where Bourne strikes Csokas with the magazine in a wide shot set against the blinds that never fails to bring a smile to my face. In the category of grounded fights – I just think this one is practically perfect from beginning to end. If I was looking for flashy or showy, I’d go elsewhere. So there you go – there’s my arguments. Have I convinced you? Do you think this is an underrated and misunderstood fight too?

3. “Paris Chase in a Mini-Cooper” -The Bourne Identity (2002)
- Commentary: To get to Paris Jason Bourne pays a woman named Marie to drive him in her mini car. After a murdered CIA assassin gets authorities riled up, Bourne and Marie need to go on the run. Cornered at a train station they have to run. Bourne takes a look at Paris map and hits the road. The sequence is a jolt of electricity from beginning to end. Weaving in and out of streets and alleys, the mini car allows the chase to go places many others can’t – including driving down a set of stairs. There is a nice sequence where Bourne drives along the Seine River the wrong way, leading to some nice damage and stunts. This is a classic car chase shot in the old school style – practical and on-location. Great stuff.

GRADE: A
2. “Tangiers Chase & Fight: Bourne vs. Desh” -The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
- Commentary: Although I don't think this sequence is better than my number one pick, I do think it picks up on the formula and evolves it into something uniquely Bourne and uniquely entertaining. A CIA leaker named Daniels is currently in Tangiers and Bourne as well as a CIA assassin named Desh are out to find him. This phase is edited like the surveillance sequence at Waterloo station - cutting back and forth from CIA HQ and to our main characters as the chess pieces move on the board...that score building in the background. Desh gets one up on Bourne and is able to kill Daniels through a cleverly hidden bomb. This kicks off the second phase of the sequence, the chase. Desh is looking to take out Nikki Parsons while Bourne is looking to take down Desh and escape the police. This sequence is the "Berlin Hotel to Subway Chase" done in daylight and played out with more time. The chase moves from market places to tight residential squares where Bourne takes to the rooftops and has to jump between houses (giving us that iconic shot of him jumping through a window). This all eventually culminates in a superlative fight sequence against Desh. It's quick, hard hitting, and features the staples of Bourne fights - mostly confined space, non-flashy martial arts, and using surrounding objects to his advantage (in this case a book and a towel). Look, there's MUCH better and more epic cinematic fights out there than this one (go watch Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or Tony Jaa), but none of them are told in this uniquely grounded style in the context of suspenseful urban chases. It's the culmination of a Paul Greengrass formula begun in The Bourne Supremacy and built on here.

GRADE: A+
1. “Chased on Foot and Car in Moscow” -The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
- Commentary: The quintessential Jason Bourne sequence to me is an extended and increasingly intense urban chase punctuated by a visceral fight or car chase. The top two action sequences on the list are the epitome of what this series does and compose the top shelf of "grounded" spy action. This style after The Bourne Supremacy was so influential that Martin Campbell essentially spent the first hour of James Bond's 2006 reboot Casino Royale in Bourne's image. This sequence begins with Bourne making a trip to Moscow to find the daughter of someone the Russian figures he learns he assassinated when he was in Treadstone. Before he finds the girl, the authorities and the assassin, played by Karl Urban, are on to him. What ensues is the best action sequence in the franchise. An already injured Bourne is forced to flee on foot when his taxi driver learns he is a wanted man and high tails it out of there. Luckily, Urban spots Bourne walking along a riverway and is able to get a shot off into his shoulder, causing Bourne even more injury. The bleeding Bourne makes his way through some underground walkways and into a market where he grabs items to deal with his injury (alcohol, a wrap) and, yep, a road map for the chase he knows is happening. Urban and the authorities are always a step behind this foot chase. At one point he is stopped by cops and taxi men and is forced to fight them off. He gets in the taxi and the car chase is now on. If the Paris chase was a classic of traditional car chases – then this one is a classic of a brand new style. Using his unique editing and camera work – Greengrass conveys a wild and brutal car chase through Moscow. High speeds, big roads, and lots of damage to Bourne’s car happens here – all the while Bourne is pouring alcohol on his wound, overlooking a Moscow map, and shifting gears like a mad man. This is the first car chase I can recall watching that sometimes feels like its in a destruction derby. Along with this new emphasis on self-damage, you get a lot of the classic tropes here – last second turns, going the wrong way, destruction – but they feel incredibly fresh in Greengrass’s style and the driving beat of the score. The scene finishes off with a heck of an impactful stunt done in a tunnel. This is a masterpiece.

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