With the release of sci-fi thriller Elysium, Sky Movies' Mikey Papadopoulos looks back over the consummate career of Matt Damon.
“I'm not Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Those guys walk into a room and the room changes. I think there's something more... not average, but everyman about me.” – Matt Damon
Forty-two-year-old Matthew Paige Damon is one of the biggest film stars on the planet. He’s also one of the smartest, and the most shrewd. No other A-Listers are currently picking their films as carefully, or as consistently well as he.
His latest outing is Elysium, a cerebral sci-fi thriller from Neill Blomkamp, the director of the Oscar nominated District 9. It’s midway through the 22nd Century and mankind lives in squalor on a ruined, dying Earth - all except the super-rich who inhabit a luxurious, pristine space station which they carefully guard from the troubled hoards below. Like all great sci-fi, it’s a film about ideas and in a packed blockbuster season in which both quality and box office numbers haven’t been particularly high, the best film of the summer might turn out to be an allegory about wealth, poverty and power.
In a summer of Supermen, Iron Men, Wolverines, Lone Rangers and robots punching lizards, that’s quite an achievement. But it’s no surprise. Matt Damon has become more than a star- he has become a badge of quality for the films in which he appears.
“The scripts, the director and the role - those are the three things I look for and really any two of them, If I get two of them that's usually enough”– Matt Damon
Despite his early Oscar winning success with Good Will Hunting alongside friend, co-writer and co-star Ben Affleck in 1997, Damon did not make the immediate jump to superstardom. Indeed, it was Affleck, the younger, more conventionally handsome of the pair who was predicted to shine brightest. It was Affleck who promptly signed on for a central role in Michael Bay’s Armageddon the year after Good Will Hunting’s statuette success. Damon opted for the smaller, more satisfying supporting role in Saving Private Ryan.
Damon’s subsequent films Rounders, Dogma, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Finding Forrester and All The Pretty Horses, although all well received, certainly did not catapult him onto the A-List. Even a part in Ocean’s Eleven, one of the best populist movies of the last 20 years didn’t make the difference. It was not until his role as an amnesiac, found floating face down in the ocean that Matt Damon did become a true star.
“Right before 'The Bourne Identity' came out, I hadn't been offered a movie in a year.” - Matt Damon
It is extraordinary how the Bourne franchise changed action movies. The Bourne Identity was released in 2002, the same year as Pierce Brosnan’s 007 swansong, Die Another Day. Whereas the 20th incarnation of Bond featured lasers, invisible cars and kite-surfing, The Bourne Identity focused on character, on a man who was trying rediscover his place in the world and escape the deeds of his past. Its impact was seismic.
A significant hit for a mid budget film, The Bourne Identity became a bona fide phenomenon on DVD. No film fight scene would ever be the same again. The James Bond producers spent four years reshaping the character in Bourne’s image. Daniel Craig and Eon Productions owe a large debt of gratitude to Matt Damon.
Certainly since 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, his first collaboration with British director Paul Greengrass, Damon has enjoyed an extraordinary run of critical and commercial success. Even the tiresome Ocean’s sequels were mere quid pro quos to ensure Warner Bros invested in more substantial, less accessible films like Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana.
2004 also saw one of Damon’s most hilarious appearances to date. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America featured a puppet of Matt Damon. Originally intending to voice him normally, Parker and Stone decided Damon’s puppet made him look like he had learning difficulties, hence the single, now legendary line it speaks throughout the film- “Maaatt Daamon”. The real Matt Damon was furious. Not because of the mockery, but because he hadn’t been asked to voice the line himself. Parker and Stone subsequently described Damon as ‘A pretty cool guy.’ From those two heavyweight iconoclasts, that’s praise indeed.
Perhaps that is part of Damon’s appeal. He does seem like ‘a good guy’ and those who have interviewed him report that he is every bit as smart, engaging and funny as his public persona. And be in no doubt, he’s a very fine actor - a trait not shared by many A-Listers.
“I never wanted to do the same kind of movies over and over anyway, so my theory on it all is I'm just gonna try and dodge the label and keep doing what I am doing.” – Matt Damon
How many other major stars are as comfortable as the lynchpin of an action franchise like Bourne, quite simply one of the finest movie trilogies ever made, whilst also excelling in an explicit arthouse film about Liberace’s young gay lover? The range and tone of his films are increasingly unpredictable. The Informant! is a criminally underrated comedy drama about corporate spying that saw Damon wielding an impressive middle-management moustache and at his significant comedic best. It is an overlooked classic.
Coming off the back of Steven Soderbergh’s brutal pandemic thriller Contagion, Damon starred in We Bought A Zoo, one of the sweetest family films in a decade. The projects he picks may be good but they seem to be strengthened by his presence.
“Success is not something I've wrapped my brain around. If people go to those movies, then yes, that's true, big-time success. If not, it's much ado about nothing.” – Matt Damon
It’s been a long time since Matt Damon starred in a dud. Even Clint Eastwood’s fantasy drama Hereafter, probably the least satisfying film of Damon’s in a decade, featured an extraordinarily powerful tsunami scene that lived long in the memory. Though it also boasted one of the worst acting performances from a child to ever grace a major studio film - on a par with Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace. Yes. That bad. Not even Matt Damon’s considerable powers can save a film under those circumstances.
Alongside HBO’s Behind The Candelabra earlier this year, Elysium sees 2013 provide two of Matt Damon’s strongest ever performances. If the former had been in cinemas rather than on cable TV in the US, there is no doubt Damon would be heading for his second Oscar win. It’s a magnificent turn as a gentle, affectionate, vulnerable soul seeking an emotional anchor in a storm of fame and wealth.
Indeed, would Elysium be receiving critical acclaim and commercial success had Eminem been the star as producers originally intended? We would suggest not. The Real Slim Shady is just imitating a film star, Matt Damon IS one.
And he’s one of the best.