Matt Damon: The Unlikely Action Hero

'The Bourne Ultimatum' actor is the most believable action star in Hollywood — and maybe the best.

Attention Bruce Willis, Vin Diesel and Daniel Craig — How do you like these apples: When “The Bourne Ultimatum” is released this weekend, it will cement Matt Damon’s place as the most believable action star in Hollywood — and possibly the best. He’s also the most unlikely.

Why? Because while he leaps over rooftops in Tangiers, drives a stolen vehicle through the streets of New York, and maneuvers past dozens of trained assassins in London — in short, all the things expected of a great action star — he’s still somehow more John Smith than John Rambo, more audience cipher than celluloid god. “He’s not a typical action star,” said co-star Julia Stiles, who has appeared with Damon in all three “Bourne” films.

Indeed, it would be tough to find someone who, 10 years ago, would have thought this was the type of film Damon was destined for. It was only a few years ago that he was better known as one half of an Oscar-winning screenwriting team, and for starring in — as buddy Ben Affleck memorably chides him in “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” — “gay-serial-killers-who-ride-horses-and-like-to-play-golf, touchy-feely pictures” like “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “All the Pretty Horses” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance.” They’re eclectic films that showed his range as an actor but did little to dent the box office or position him as the next, great action hero.

“It was really Doug Liman, the director of the first one, who had the idea to cast me,” Damon told MTV News. “Nobody would have thought that. Even Tony Gilroy, who wrote ‘The Bourne Identity’ — when Doug mentioned my name, Tony didn’t even think [I'd be right]. I don’t think I’m the person you think of [for the role]. It’s not a natural fit.”

He isn’t — or at any rate, he wasn’t. But that’s precisely what makes him perfect, said colleagues: his ability to do any number of impossible things in the films, but in a way that makes them seem eminently possible.

“I think that’s why audiences respond to him, because he’s real — he’s a real guy,” “Bourne” director Paul Greengrass said of his star.

“There is an accessibility to him,” Stiles echoed. “He’s not Superman — he’s not super-human.”

Part of that, of course, is the character itself, an amnesiac super-spy with no history, aching to discover secrets of his past. Without so much as even a real name until the end of the third film, it’s easy to see how Bourne would be much easier to identify with than, say, Bruce Wayne or James Bond: rich, arrogant, playboys with little to tie them to the common man. Part of it, too, is the style in which the films were shot by Greengrass and (earlier) Liman: gritty, handheld and with a documentary feel.

But more than anything, it’s Damon, insisted co-star Joan Allen, who is able to infuse Bourne with very human qualities in the midst of non-stop, inhuman action.

“I don’t even know how Matt plays it — vulnerability and confusion,” the three-time Oscar nominee asserted. “You want to take care of him somehow, even though he knows how to take out six guys in a stairwell like that. [She snaps her fingers.] Sometimes I look at his face and there’s so many levels of history and regret and strength. I don’t quite know how he gets those wrapped up in a package.”

It’s an emotional complexity that Damon has excelled at before, perfected in roles like Tom Ripley and Colin Sullivan (“The Departed”), where duplicitous and sometimes sinister motives are hidden beneath a calm visage — but “never better than in ‘Bourne,’ ” Greengrass insisted, where Damon is charged with having “to embody action, but also to deliver character.”

By being able to do both so well, does that make Damon the best action star in Hollywood, even if he still has to be considered one of its most unlikely?

Audiences will decide this weekend, but Greengrass knows who has his vote.

“He certainly is,” Greengrass nodded. “The main reason why people love these movies is because of him.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

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