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Image: Matt Damon
Universal Pictures
In “The Green Zone,” Matt Damon portrays a rogue U.S. military officer hunting for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The film was directed by Paul Greengrass, who worked with Damon on the second and third “Bourne” pictures.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/19/2010 9:20:51 PM ET 2010-03-20T01:20:51

It may have required a colossal leap of imagination for moviegoers to accept the actor who played the sensitive, lonely and confused Tom Ripley in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” in the action-packed role of lethal government-trained assassin Jason Bourne. But when director Doug Liman first set out on the casting path for “The Bourne Identity,” the 2002 box office hit that was the first installment in the lucrative franchise, it didn’t take him long to choose Matt Damon as his leading man. 

“I wanted to create the thinking man’s action movie,” said Liman, who recently finished shooting “Fair Game,” about the Valerie Plame saga, with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. “Matt comes across as so smart and so cerebral that he was the ideal choice for me. As Jason Bourne, he makes very intelligent choices even as he keeps kicking people’s asses. In fact, the style of fighting that we chose minimizes his own personal energy exertion and uses his opponent’s energy against him.

“So I wasn’t casting ‘The Terminator,’” Liman said. “Matt surprised me with exactly how muscular he was able to be.”

“Muscular” might be the key word in the Damon lexicon these days, not so much for his ability to fight but for his clout in Hollywood. He has not only excelled in offbeat character roles but has established himself as an A-list actor who can be taken seriously as an action star.

In his next film, “The Green Zone,” Damon portrays a rogue U.S. military officer hunting for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The film was directed by Paul Greengrass, who worked with Damon on the second and third “Bourne” pictures.

Intelligent action hero
Any actor worth a lick in the movie business thrives on his own honesty. But Damon’s staying power and versatility might be explained by his ability to exude that virtue more than most.

Video: 'Green Zone' “I can’t work in that genre,” Liman said of action films. “I don’t know how to do less than honest, which made Matt the perfect Jason Bourne for me because he comes from such a place of honesty. It’s very hard to make an intelligent action movie because intelligent people avoid action movies. Most of us don’t walk down that dark alley. Most of us who think of ourselves as smart choose to put ourselves in an environment where we’re not confronted by action.

“In ‘The Bourne Identity,’ it was the perfect setup to take the perfect character and put him in a situation where there is action that he can’t avoid no matter how smart he is. You have to deal with it. Certainly Matt is one of the most talented working actors we’ve got, and he’s incredibly versatile.”

Actually, “versatile” might outduel “muscular” when it comes to labeling Damon. Kim Masters, a veteran Hollywood correspondent whose show “The Business” appears regularly on National Public Radio, applied the term to the career of an actor who can generate box office receipts with his fists, but who also can garner critical praise for more idiosyncratic roles.

Video: In the ‘Zone’ with Matt Damon “(Damon) has achieved what very few people can achieve in this world, and that is stardom where he’s enormously versatile, either as an action hero or in small artsy films, Oscar material,” Masters said. “He has had a varied, across-the-board kind of career. It’s really rare in today’s Hollywood, and he has done it brilliantly.”

She calls the “Bourne” franchise “what every movie star dreams of,” but also notes that Damon has enjoyed success in the “Ocean’s Eleven” series of films and yet has distinguished himself with superior work in pictures like “Ripley,” “Good Will Hunting” and “The Departed.”

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Early word on “The Green Zone” is mixed, Masters reported, because the film has been pushed back and reworked, which can often be a signal that there are problems with it. So the issue of whether Damon can exist as an action star outside of “Bourne” is yet to be resolved.

“What’s unfortunate is that the Paul Greengrass-Matt Damon magic on ‘Bourne’ doesn’t seem to be happening with this film,” she said.

Films that have featured or starred Damon have generated gross revenues of more than two billion dollars, according to boxofficemojo.com. All three of the “Bourne” films, as well as the three “Ocean’s” installments, have each generated more than $100 million, topping out with 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum,” which took in more than $227 million worldwide.

But more thoughtful Damon fare like “The Informant!” ($33 million), “The Good Shepherd” ($59 million) and “Syriana” ($50 million) didn’t do as well, and even pictures with higher profiles like “The Brothers Grimm” ($37 million) and “Stuck on You” ($33 million) underperformed.

“Typically actors are overrated at the box office, and Matt Damon is no exception,” said Brandon Gray, president and publisher of boxofficemojo.com. “His career has been up and down. Overall, he’s pretty solid, probably above average.

“But there are very few actors — and there have been very few for a very long time — who can open a movie on name alone. Matt Damon is not one of those actors. The benefit of having a name actor or a famous actor is in raised awareness for a picture. But it doesn’t necessarily lead to box office.”

Not at Depp’s level — yet
Gray feels that Damon, like most working actors today, doesn’t do enough to develop his brand.

“When you think of star power, that’s kind of an old-fashioned term,” Gray said. “When people came up with that idea, it was a time when an actor’s name meant something, and it indicated what kind of a movie you’d be getting.

“With John Wayne, it was a Western or an action film. With Cary Grant, it was comedy or romance or a sentimental drama. On top of that, actors don’t have the same stature that they once had, they’re not quite the personalities that they used to be. That’s the real issue here. That’s why most actors aren’t box office draws. They don’t take the time to develop their brand.

Video: Inside the 'Green Zone' “Johnny Depp is his own brand, being the quirky actor, whether it’s in the ‘Pirates’ movies or anything else. That’s why he’s one of the most bankable actors today. Matt Damon isn’t there yet. To that end, ‘The Green Zone’ might be a step toward defining Matt Damon. It appears to be his first action movie outside of the ‘Bourne’ franchise, and that could be a start toward establishing a brand for himself.”

Whether he indeed becomes a brand, or if he simply remains Matt Damon the actor, film critic Richard Roeper likes what he has seen so far and hopes it continues.

“I’d like to see him continue on the path he’s taken,” Roeper said, “mixing big-budget films with smaller character roles. I don’t think he needs to adjust. I think he’s too smart to go awry.

“I can’t think of him giving a bad performance. He’s not somebody who is prone to overacting or overdoing it. And he chooses his material extremely well.”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. He lives in Los Angeles.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Photos: Matt Damon

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  1. Going to the Globes

    Matt Damon arrives at the 71st annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Jan. 12, 2014. (Jordan Strauss / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. "The Monuments Men"

    This undated publicity photo provided by Sony Pictures Publicity shows actors Matt Damon and Kate Blanchett in a scene from the Columbia Pictures film "The Monuments Men." Damon portrays James Rorimer who was one of a group of men tasked with saving works of art during World War II. (Claudette Barius / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Furry friend

    Matt Damon appears on Univision's Despierta America to promote his new film Elysium at Univision Headquarters in Miami on July 29. (Gustavo Caballero / Getty Images ) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. He'll take your questions now

    Actor Matt Damon attends an "An Evening with Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant" at The Times Center in New York on Nov. 27, 2012. (Brad Barket / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Independent streak

    Damon attends the IFP's 22nd Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards at Cipriani Wall Street in New York on Nov. 26, 2012. (Theo Wargo / Getty Images for IFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Back to the future

    Damon speaks on a panel for the futuristic thriller "Elysium" during Comic-Con International 2012 at the San Diego Convention Center on July 13, 2012. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Front row for fashion

    Damon and wife Luciana Barroso attend the Naeem Khan Fall 2012 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at The Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York on Feb. 14, 2012. (Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Who let them out?

    Damon and actress Scarlett Johansson attend the "We Bought a Zoo" premiere at Ziegfeld Theater in New York on Dec. 12, 2011. (Joe Corrigan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Hello, kitty

    Damon gets up close and personal with one of his new four-legged neighbors in the December 2011film "We Bought A Zoo." Damon stars with Scarlett Johansson in the film directed by Cameron Crowe. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Hair today, gone tomorrow

    Damon shaved his head for a role in an upcoming film, "Elysium," a futuristic film set on another planet. The film was written and directed by "District 9's" Neill Blomkamp and is due out in 2013. (Claudio Onorati / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Catchy role

    Damon's wife (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) turns out to be Patient Zero in a pandemic that changes the world in 2011's "Contagion." (Claudette Barius / Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 'The Adjustment Bureau'

    Damon plays a man whose life is managed by men in tailored suits and fedoras, including John Slattery, left, who make sure everyone and everything follows a predetermined plan. (Andrew Schwartz / Universal Pictures via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. 'True Grit'

    Damon stars as LeBeouf, a Texas Ranger, opposite Hailee Steinfeld in the Coen brothers remake of "True Grit." (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. 'Hereafter'

    In the Clint Eastwood-directed film, Damon stars as George, a blue-collar American who has a special connection to the afterlife. (Ken Regan / Warner Bros. Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Paying up

    Damon wears a New Orleans Saints jersey, the result of a lost Super Bowl bet to "The Hurt Locker" star Anthony Mackie, during a visit to "Late Show with David Letterman" on Friday, March 5, 2010. (John P. Filo / CBS via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Not easy being 'Green'

    Damon stars in 2010's "Green Zone," a film set in the chaotic early days of the Iraq War, when no one could be trusted and every decision could detonate unforeseen consequences. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Happy couple

    Damon married Luciana Barroso in 2005. They have two daughters together, and Damon is stepfather to her daughter from an earlier marriage. (Ben Stansall / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A real kick

    In 2009's "Invictus," Damon plays Francois Pienaar, the captain of the 1995 South African rugby team. The team's fortunes blend with the hope surrounding new South African president Nelson Mandela. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Speaking from the chair

    In 2009's dark comedy, "The Informant," Damon plays Mark Whitacre in a film telling the true story of the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower in U.S. history. (Warner Bros) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Hail to the chief

    Damon shakes hands with former president Bill Clinton at a 2009 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. The meeting brings together leaders to discuss global issues such as climate change and peace in the Middle East. Damon is the co-founder of Water.org, and has announced a commitment to bring safe drinking water and sanitation to a minimum of 50,000 people in Haiti over the next three years. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. 'Bourne' to be wild

    In 2007, Damon reprised his role as spy Jason Bourne in "The Bourne Ultimatum," sequel to two previous Bourne films. The movie was the only Bourne film to be nominated for any Academy Awards, winning best film editing, best sound, and best sound editing. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Brothers on bikes

    Damon and his brother Kyle take part in the 2009 Cape Argus Cycling Tour in Cape Town, South Africa. Matt Damon rode the 109 km (67 mile) cycle tour for charity while shooting "Invictus" in South Africa. (Gallo Images / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Just one of the guys

    Comedian Jack Black presented Damon with an award at Spike TV's Guys Choice Awards in 2008. Damon was named Guy of the Year and was also honored for his role in "The Bourne Ultimatum." (Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Seeing stars

    Damon displays his plaque as he is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007. (Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Lucky 13

    Damon joined the modern Rat Pack, led by George Clooney, for 2007's "Ocean's Thirteen," the third in the line of "Ocean's" movies. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The ABCs of the CIA

    In 2006's "The Good Shepherd," Damon played Edward Wilson, a character loosely based on two real men who helped start counterintelligence in the early days of the CIA. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Dearly 'Departed'

    Damon teamed up with Jack Nicholson and director Martin Scorsese in 2006's "The Departed," which won best picture and best director at the 2007 Oscars. (- / Warner Bros) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. The politics of oil

    Damon, Amanda Peet and George Clooney attend the 2005 premiere of "Syriana" in New York. Damon played an energy analyst, Peet played his wife, and Clooney a CIA operative. (Evan Agostini / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Once upon a time

    Damon and Heath Ledger play "The Brothers Grimm," the fairy-tale storytellers, who in the 2005 film are traveling as con artists in early 19th-century Germany. (Miramax Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. He ain't heavy, he's my brother

    In a departure from his usual serious roles, Damon joined comedian Greg Kinnear to play conjoined twins in the 2003 Farrelly Brothers comedy "Stuck on You." (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Time to be 'Bourne'

    Damon first appeared as spy Jason Bourne in 2002's "The Bourne Identity," based on Robert Ludlum's best-selling novel. Franka Potente co-starred. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Give it the 'Greenlight'

    Actor Ben Affleck and Damon attend the premiere of "Project Greenlight" in 2001 in New York. "Project Greenlight" was a contest and television show created by Affleck and Damon that gave aspiring writers and directors a chance to fulfill their own dreams, selecting one winning film and then following it through production. (George De Sota / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. The new Rat Pack?

    The original "Ocean's Eleven," made in 1960, starred Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and others. The new "Eleven," released in 2001, cast, from left, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Damon, Elliott Gould and Don Cheadle. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Don't forget Winona

    Actress Winona Ryder and Damon, seen here at the 2000 Golden Globes, dated for two years. Damon and Ryder maintained a low-profile relationship -- by Hollywood standards, anyway -- and were seldom seen together out on the town. (Kevin Mazur / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Howdy

    Damon plays John Grady Cole in 2000's "All the Pretty Horses" about a young Texas cowboy who leaves home for Mexico, where he falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy landowner. (Getty Images / Miramax Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Fore!

    Will Smith co-starred with Damon in 2000's "Legend of Bagger Vance," a film which has since been criticized for being racially insensitive. (DreamWorks) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Fallen angels

    Damon and Affleck star as two fallen angels in Kevin Smith's 1999 comedy, "Dogma." The film's caustic views on religion led to protests and controversy. (Lions Gate Films/Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Fighting his way home

    Damon played the title role in 1998's "Saving Private Ryan," but it's Tom Hanks most viewers remember. Hanks leads a group of servicemen who try to find Damon's Pvt. Ryan and return him home after it's learned that his three brothers have all died in battle. (Rex Features via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. 'Hunting' for stardom

    Damon first drew major attention for his role as prodigy Will Hunting in 1997's "Good Will Hunting." Robin Williams plays the only person who can finally break past Hunting's defenses. Damon not only starred in the film, he co-wrote it with childhood pal Ben Affleck. (Miramax Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. They can write, too

    Damon and Affleck hold the Oscars they won for best original screenplay for "Good Will Hunting" at the 1998 Academy Awards. Damon was also nominated for best actor for the film. (Hal Garb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Mother's Day

    Affleck and Damon escorted their mothers, Chris and Nancy, to the Oscars in 1998. The proud moms were able to see their sons claim the best screenplay statuettes. (Vince Bucci / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. 'Good Will' dating

    Damon met actress Minnie Driver while filming "Good Will Hunting," and the couple dated for two years. (Steve Granitz / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
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