The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Matt Damon
Matt Damon's a guy who people really had pegged wrong early-on in his career. A blond-haired golden-boy when he first became a star in movies like THE RAINMAKER and the great GOOD WILL HUNTING (for which he and Ben Affleck won the best original screenplay Oscar), Damon, unlike other actors in his situation, became quite choosy with parts. While some of his GOOD WILL HUNTING follow-ups were underwhelming, such as ALL THE PRETTY HORSES (apparently ruined in the editing room) and the ill-conceived THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE, movies like THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY proved he was willing to tackle tough parts. Back in 2000, many young actors would have balked at playing a gay, sociopath killer, but Damon not only took on the role, but managed to give Tom Ripley a humanity many of his contemporaries would have struggled to convey.
Still, I remember in 2001 people thought Damon's career was more-or-less over, and when he signed on to do THE BOURNE IDENTITY no one expected much, especially after numerous delays and stories of a troubled shoot. When the movie finally came out in 2002, it initially struggled to find an audience (it was beaten in its opening weekend by SCOOBY-DOO) but good word-of-mouth made it a sleeper hit, and when the DVD came-out it became a smash. The sequels made Damon a full-on superstar, but rather than simply parlay his stardom into a slew of action flicks, Damon used his clout to get smart, sophisticated, issue-driven movies like SYRIANA, GREEN ZONE, THE INFORMANT and more made. He also sought-out work with the absolute best directors he could find, like Martin Scorsese (THE DEPARTED), Joel & Ethan Coen (TRUE GRIT), Kenneth Lonnergan (the long-delayed but excellent MARGARET), Cameron Crowe (WE BOUGHT A ZOO), Clint Eastwood (HEREAFTER, INVICTUS) and now Ridley Scott with THE MARTIAN. Truly, Matt Damon is not only one of our great movie stars but also one of the best actors of his generation and a hugely likable guy to boot.
GOOD WILL HUNTING is Matt Damon's best movie. Working with Gus Van Sant, from a script he co-wrote with co-star/best friend Ben Affleck, and featuring an Oscar-winning turn by Robin Williams, it's a modern classic. However, Damon's most iconic part is without a doubt Jason Bourne. Like Sean Connery with James Bond, Damon will always be associated with Robert Ludlum's amnesiac super spy-assassin. A spy-hero for a darkly cynical age, the Bourne trilogy struck such a nerve with the movie-going public that it spawned dozens of imitators, and even made a strong impression on the Bond series, with QUANTUM OF SOLACE being particularly Bourne-like. What made Damon so special in the part is that he doesn't look like an action hero. While he's in great shape, Damon has a kind face and looks like a normal, nice-guy, and as such Bourne never came-across as a superhero. Coupled with Dan Bradley's action-design and Doug Liman/Paul Greengrass' realistic, documentary-like shooting style, the films were truly unique at the time. But it was Damon who was the truly essential ingredient and when Universal tried to make a Damon-less Bourne movie (THE BOURNE LEGACY) it didn't quite work. Damon is more than simply Jason Bourne, but no matter what he does, it'll no doubt be the part that will define his career.
Matt Damon's done tons of movies that didn't quite connect with audiences that were quite good, including CONTAGION (which did OK but deserved to be a blockbuster), PROMISED LAND and GREEN ZONE. But, the movie of his that's a truly unheralded classic is John Dahl's ROUNDERS. If this had come along just a few years later, when poker-playing became super hip and mainstream, this brilliant little gambling movie would have become a smash-hit. Pairing Damon with Edward Norton, ROUNDERS was probably hurt by the fact that it wasn't aiming to win any Oscars, but it's a superb little seventies-style buddy flick. It's a shame Damon and Norton never re-teamed.
I love Steven Soderbergh as well as Damon, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle and more. So why is it the OCEAN'S trilogy never quite worked for me? Truth be told, I thought the original was a fun (if wafer-thin) re-imagining of the Frank Sinatra/Rat Pack classic but the sequels always struck me as Clooney and company's (expensive) vacation home movies. There's nothing to them. Everyone looks like they're having a great time, and audiences shelled out plenty of cash, but the movies themselves haven't really aged too well, and I doubt anyone involved would list OCEAN'S TWELVE or OCEAN'S THIRTEEN as examples of their best work.
Remember that scene in THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN where Paul Rudd is watching THE BOURNE IDENTITY and tells Steve Carell (in a decidedly non-PC way)"I always thought that Matt Damon was like a Streisand, but he's rocking the shit out of this one?" Well, I think that's the reaction a lot of guy had watching Doug Liman's original film, especially at the mid-way point, where Damon takes-on a hulking assassin in a brutal hand-to-hand scrap, which, at the time, was considered one of the most impressive martial arts-driven fight scenes in a mainstream American film. Anyone who needed to be won-over to the notion of Matt Damon as an action hero likely were once this scene was over.
As always, Damon is incredibly prolific. THE MARTIAN hits theaters this week, and he's already wrapped the Zhang Yimou Chinese epic THE GREAT WALL. Next summer, Damon's re-teaming with Paul Greengrass to deliver the long-awaited fourth Bourne movie, and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if it went-on to be the biggest and best of the series, as everyone involved clearly waited until the right script came along to give audiences the strong new installment they deserve.
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