matt damon, jason bourne, image

Matt Damon talks returning to the role of Jason Bourne

"Why would he come back now?”

So asks Tommy Lee Jones’ stern CIA chief about the surprise return of Jason Bourne, the tough-as-nails rogue field agent played by Matt Damon. After three films where the fugitive agent couldn’t be intercepted, followed by a decade spent off the grid (and movie screens), he’s back for the aptly titled Jason Bourne.

Why would he come back now? Damon, director Paul Greengrass, Universal Studios and a huge fanbase simply wanted to see Bourne born again.

Before Damon played Jason Bourne in director Doug Liman’s 2002 franchise kickoff The Bourne Identity, his career largely consisted of sensitive dramatic parts or supporting comic roles. Few of them showcased the Oscar-winning skills he displayed as co-writer and star of 1997’s Good Will Hunting.

Transforming into an elite fighting machine showed Damon could be a master of intense action sequences too. He has described the character as a sort of ninja ordinary Joe — a poker-faced good guy who kills people when necessary but keeps a sense of decency about him.

“It appealed to me on an intuitive level because it wasn’t like anything I had done before,” Damon says over the phone from Los Angeles. “I’ve played some villains in my time but I think I get cast as an "Every man" a lot. Those guys tend to be the protagonist.”

Damon was already quite familiar with author Robert Ludlum’s bestselling thrillers when the project came up.

“I’d been a fan of the books when I was a kid and Doug Liman just came to me with the idea. At the time he said, ‘Look, I don’t relate to James Bond and I think there’s a real vacuum there. There’s room for a character for our generation. Kind of a spy for our generation.’ Then I read the script and I loved it. And really that was that,” he says.

The original Bourne trilogy introduced a gritty look and feel that lifted the genre from pure escapism to unprecedented heights of tension. Bourne films were Bond films really, really taking themselves seriously. Battling amnesia from the brainwashing that made him an international assassin, Bourne was like James Bond if he hated being 007, and M was the villain.

Without fancy gadgets from Q, Bourne improvised his deadly weapons from everyday materials, destroying enemies with hardcover books, ballpoint pens, lamp cords and bathroom towels.

The role boosted Damon’s appeal hugely, and globally, and he happily returned for two sequels, 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy and then 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum.

The stories were a natural fit for Damon, one of Hollywood’s most outspoken liberals, because aside from being action movies they tapped into the fears we have about the spy industry infringing on our civil liberties. A deceitful guy wearing a tie and sitting behind a desk is the agent’s greatest threat.

“The first three movies were kind of about the Bush presidency in a way,” Damon says. Bourne was a post-9/11 character being controlled by grim Washington, D.C., bureaucrats playing Cold War chess with human pawns. His battles were fresher, leaner and faster than any spy thriller in years, but they were founded on realism, Damon says, operating “in that world of absence of habeas corpus, and waterboarding.”

We haven’t seen Damon as Jason Bourne since he and Greengrass, who helmed Ultimatum and Supremacy, walked away after the third film, in which Bourne regained his memory. In a franchise-focused industry where actors are often contracted to appear in multiple movies over many years, Damon only signed up for one Bourne film at a time.

“We kind of had to wait for the world to change a little bit before bringing him back,” Damon says. “We would talk and revisit it every couple of years. We’d talk about whether there was a story to tell, was there a way to approach it that would be interesting enough for us to want to do it.”

The Bourne franchise was on the cusp of supplanting James Bond as the new spy franchise of record until Casino Royale copied its grittier tone in 2006 and reinvigorated 007. Bourne waited at the side of the road, parked in neutral, while Damon took an eclectic array of roles for a spin.

He played a cowboy buffoon with a romantic streak in True Grit, flaunted a feathered Farrah Fawcett hairdo as Liberace’s lover in Behind the Candelabra and squeezed into space suits as abandoned astronauts in both Interstellar and The Martian.

Meanwhile, Greengrass turned his lens to real-world-based international conflicts in Green Zone and Captain Phillips, and Universal tried to launch a sideline spinoff anointing Jeremy Renner, ever the promising newcomer, as a new action star. The result, 2012’s The Bourne Legacy, grossed a good but not great $276-million (U.S.) worldwide (compared with Ultimatum’s $443-million.)

Then, thank heavens, Jason Bourne arrived.

“I always said I’d be ready to do another one if Paul wanted to do it,” Damon says. “It just took us years to decide that we wanted to. That there was something to state with the character, you know?

“Now I feel it’s kind of a post-Snowden world and what does that character have to say?”

Damon says the new film opens with a nighttime riot in destitute, austerity-ridden Greece, the birthplace of democracy, and climaxes with a high-speed nighttime smashup in upscale Las Vegas, a city with financial issues of its own.

“By the time we got to shooting we were pretty confident in the story we were telling. I feel like it’s really important to put this out in the world,” he says. “It’s got a really important message. Particularly with a presidential election coming up and everybody trying to divide us.”

With Damon and Greengrass back in the fold the saga seems to have gotten back on track, and Damon, unfailingly polite, offers best wishes for his spy film’s biggest competitor.

“The Bond franchise?” he muses. “Hopefully we can be as successful as them with our next one.”

Jason Bourne hits Cineplex theatres on July 29th! Click here for tickets and showtimes!