"If you have a good fourth Bourne story, call Universal and they'll give you a bunch of money," said Matt Damon to Empire magazine. The star of the Bourne trilogy recently confessed that Universal Pictures was having problems figuring out a decent story for the fourth instalment of the most successful action franchise of the past 30 years. "This one's really tricky - you can't see Bourne saying: 'I don't remember' any more, because he's lost and regained his memory three times already," said Damon. To compound the problem, the trio of Robert Ludlum spy thrillers on which the films are based has been exhausted.
Then, last week, Damon's story problem got a lot worse. Paul Greengrass, 54, the celebrated British director responsible for The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Ultimatum, which made a combined total of more than $700 million (Dh2.6 billion) at the box office, announced he would not be directing the fourth Bourne movie. His announcement threw into disarray plans to release the film by 2011. According to The Playlist, a film website that broke the story, Greengrass walked out over a decision by Universal to hire the screenwriter Josh Zetumer instead of Greengrass's favoured candidate, George Nolfi. And, says The Sunday Times' movie writer Stephen Armstrong, Greengrass does not take studio meddling very well.
"Greengrass is a difficult documentary maker," said Armstrong. "He comes from the 1970s World in Action tradition of brave, maverick voices that created all the best bits of British TV from the past 20 years. His films, such as Bloody Sunday, Omagh and The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, often feature characters with complicated relationships to authority, and as a documentary maker he is not used to giving up editorial control."
Greengrass's contribution to the Bourne Trilogy has changed the way modern thrillers are made, say critics. "Greengrass is fond of staging the action in tight spaces, and using loose, hand-held camerawork, which really puts the viewer in the thick of things," said Damon Wise, a contributing editor at Empire magazine. The most obvious beneficiary of this documentary-style approach to action films are the new James Bond movies starring Daniel Craig.
"In the Bourne series, there is lots of action but also an underlying story of pain, isolation and desperation," said Armstrong. "It doesn't matter how many people Bourne kills because he is at war with himself. Since Bourne, Bond has had to show his vulnerability and insecurity, too." Initially reluctant to be part of a franchise, Damon has been propelled into the triple-A list of bankable Hollywood actors thanks to the Bourne films.
"Most of the biggest-grossing films are franchises in which the star is not important," said Armstrong. "Who was in Star Trek? Who cares? The Bourne films are the only franchise that is built around an actor - that's incredibly rare. "If Matt Damon can prove he is crucial to the ongoing Bourne franchise, then actors are important. If it can carry on without him, then big-name celebrity actors don't matter and they'll be finished in Hollywood for the next 10 years."
So will Damon and Universal Pictures be able to reboot the franchise without Greengrass? There is a precedent for creatively spent franchises rediscovering their fire. "Look at Dark Knight Returns," said Armstrong. "They brought in a new character [Robin] and it saved the Batman franchise. That could happen with Bourne." While Doug Liman, who directed the original 2002 film The Bourne Identity, has been tipped to replace Greengrass, Armstrong suggests Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the Oscar-winning director of The Lives of Others, or Oliver Hirschbiegel, who directed Downfall, the German-language movie about Hitler's last days, as two directors capable of matching the intensity of Greengrass at his best.
So while the departure of Greengrass is a blow to Bourne, it is by no means a fatal one. "If a good script can be found, one that continues the Bourne brand without diluting the character's integrity, they'll go for it," Wise said. "Otherwise, there's no contract forcing everyone back, and unless he gets a massive tax bill next year, I think Matt Damon will take his time until all the right elements are in place."