Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists

THROUGH THE COVID LENS: The Bourne Ultimatum

Reassessing “The Bourne Ultimatum” in the Age of Coronavirus

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

On August 3, 2007, “The Bourne Ultimatum” was released nationwide. In the years since, few action movies – let alone action franchises – have matched the pure adrenaline rush of this Matt Damon classic.

Considered by critics to be the best of the series, “The Bourne Ultimatum” reunites Damon with the production team from 2004’s “The Bourne Supremacy,” namely, director Paul Greengrass, DP Oliver Wood, and fight choreographer Jeff Imada.

This movie is loaded with callbacks to important moments from the previous two films with Bourne’s final line (“Look what they make you give”) and the final image of him (floating on the surface of the water and presumed dead) neatly tying this movie’s ending to “The Bourne Identity.”

“The Bourne Ultimatum” went on to make $444.1 million worldwide, becoming, at the time, Matt Damon’s highest-grossing star effort (surpassed in 2015 by “The Martian”). Empire magazine voted it the number one film of 2007, and it won three Oscars (Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing).  

This movie overflows with unforgettable scenes – the Waterloo Station scene, “You look tired,” the final car chase through Manhattan – but none of them is as jaw-dropping and bone-crushing as the Tangier fight scene between Desh and Bourne. Close-quartered, fast-paced, and relentless, this fight scene is one of the best ever captured outside of the martial arts movie genre.

In this article, we take a closer look at this fight scene with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into three sections:

  • Elements that are COVID-19 Safe
  • Elements that are COVID-19 Risks
  • Strategies to increase safety

This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected one of the most memorable action moments of the 2000s. Let’s begin by looking at the ways this fight is already safe.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe

Safety was a major concern when Greengrass and company shot this scene in Morocco in early 2007. With Damon’s stunt double David Leitch jumping across balconies, through windows, and chased by a Steadicam operator, this one stunt alone required safety to take center stage.

To help ensure crewmember safety, they gave the camera to stuntman Diz Sharpe. Most importantly for safety, David Leitch jumps through an opening that didn’t have a window in it at all; the shattering glass was added in post.

Despite this focus on safety, no one was thinking about pandemic safety. And, yet, this fight scene is pretty safe from a COVID-19 perspective. The main reason it is safe is that it involves only two people.

All three of the original Matt Damon Bourne films do a fantastic job of keeping their fight scenes between two people. When Bourne encounters multiple assailants – usually unprepared police officers – he incapacitates them quickly and efficiently. When he faces a well-trained “asset,” it is always a showdown involving only two people and spectacular stunt work.

Fight scenes in movies since 2007 have grown larger, longer, and more elaborate (see the John Wick series for more than a few examples) but not necessarily more impactful. We feel every single strike and body blow in “The Bourne Ultimatum.” It feels like a real, desperate struggle for survival between two extremely well-trained fighters who will do anything to stay alive.

In a pandemic, fewer people equals more safety on set. “The Bourne Ultimatum” is a welcome reminder that a two-person fight scene can still be one for the ages.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks

When looking at what was already safe, we kept our focus on the fight scene itself. But when looking at the risks, we are going to broaden our scope and focus on the two parts of this scene:

  • The Chase
  • The Fight

The Chase

According to some accounts, the production team could not close down the streets of Tangier for the shoot. Instead, they had the actors push through a crowd of unsuspecting people; real people, not extras. While the street section of the chase scene lasts less than a minute in the movie, it took hours to shoot.

In non-pandemic times, forcing leads to interact with unprepared, non-actors is a major safety issue. We hire extras and close down streets because, without that, we cannot control the environment. In risk management, control equals safety. Non-actors can ruin takes by looking at the camera, and they may also react in ways that can compromise the safety of our lead actors.

Shooting this scene during the pandemic without any extras and without closing the street is downright dangerous. There is no national or international mandate for vaccines and no corresponding standard for testing. Sending actors into a pit of people whose COVID-19 status is unknown is something we should never let happen.

The Fight

Fight scenes are problematic elements to film during a pandemic. They require that two (or more) actors be in close contact with each other for sustained periods. If both performers are vaccinated, however, the risk of transmission and contamination decreases substantially.

As we have mentioned before, a scene is never just between two actors. When it comes to COVID-19 safety, we must remember the crew. The risks of this scene increase when we realize how many people are actually in that tiny apartment.

With grips, gaffers, camera team, make-up, art department, the fight choreographer, stunt team, the DP, the AD, and the director, we are looking at, most likely, somewhere in the ballpark of thirty people in the room.

Our focus would not necessarily be on decreasing the crew required for the scene (though, when possible, this is highly recommended). We would want to focus on their proximity to each other.

Strategies to Increase Safety

As we said at the beginning of this piece, this fight scene is one of the greatest of its era. We are not suggesting that we can do better than Paul Greengrass. We are only imagining how we would shoot it safely if we had to film it during the pandemic. When we do, we see a few ways to make this scene safer.

A Safer Chase

It goes without saying that we would do everything in our power to discourage the production team from shooting this scene on an open set with real people and no extras. This is simply far too risky for everyone involved.

If there was no way to close the street and control the set, we would suggest that the production team remove the street-chase portion of the scene if possible. If we could get Julia Stiles, Matt Damon, and Joey Anesh off the street and into the buildings immediately, we could maintain the tension of the chase without exposing our cast and crew to a bunch of random shoppers and commuters.

A Safer Fight

Paul Greengrass is synonymous with shaky-cam, and this scene is a clear example of that technique in action. There are several cuts per second; the camera is never still and never steady. This aesthetic is a choice and one that is not universally popular. Some people find that it draws them into the scene, while others feel it draws them to the nearest bathroom.

To achieve this aesthetic, the camera crew had to be right on top of the performers. This proximity is best avoided during a pandemic. The more people we have in close quarters, the greater the chance of spreading the virus.

Can we make the fight safer while also maintaining its desperation and impact?

As Tony Zhou points out in his analysis of fight choreography for his highly-praised YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting, the best way to showcase the talent of the fighters is to shoot the scene in a wide shot with a locked-down camera and very few cuts. This allows the choreography and the performers’ abilities to take center stage while shaky cam obfuscates them.

Matt Damon trained for years on his fighting ability for this franchise, and Joey Anesh is a professional stuntman and martial artist. These two men, along with the great Jeff Imada, put in the work to make this scene unforgettable. Why not showcase it?

By shooting “The Bourne Ultimatum” in this wide-shot style, we could showcase Damon’s and Anesh’s hard work and talent and move the crew back to a safe distance from our actors. Given the gruesome desperation of this fight’s ending, removing the shaky-cam might even help accentuate the scene’s emotion.

Final Thoughts

This fight scene from “The Bourne Ultimatum” is an excellent example of how action can have maximum impact with minimal performers. If we can maintain set control and increase the distance between our cast and our crew, we can make this fight scene as pandemic-proof as possible.

The safest way to film this scene today, however, is to have a 100% vaccination rate among the cast and crew. We strongly recommend that everyone on your film set get their shots well before production begins.

We also must continue to practice proper set safety. This means social distancing, regular testing, PPE, and proper sanitation practices. Until the pandemic is over, we must remain vigilant in the face of the virus. Jason Bourne may be deadly, but he is no match for COVID-19.

Join us next time when we look through the COVID lens at 2019’s Best Picture Winner, “Parasite.”

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

UPDATED: This article was updated on April 6, 2022.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.