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 heroAny 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.
“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.
“(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.”
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 — yetGray 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.
“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.