Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Unstoppable, Bourne and the Action/Sports film

Watching The Bourne Ultimatum I was struck by how the narrative structure and character dynamics seemed to match the 'story' and experience of participants and viewers both in sport and sports films.

In The Bourne Ultimatum there is a competition, physical strain, a favourite and an underdog, tactics and plays called from the sidelines (the C.I.A.) and, finally, an interested observer (Nicky) who watches the outcome broadcast on television (and smiles at the desired result).

There are therefore three clear levels in the action/sports film : the playing field, those who control (coach) the playing field (in a nerve centre) and finally the fans who follow the action/game. Sport in all but name.

Playing / Controlling / Broadcasting and...

It is much the same in Tony Scott's Unstoppable. The competition is between a runaway train and two men (Frank and Will - telling names). Plays are called by Connie from the rail network's headquarters, in front of the usual bank of screens. All the while wives and daughters follow the media coverage. The presence of a rookie (Will), just graduated to the big leagues, adds spice to this sporting tale of heroic action.

 Playing / Controlling / Broadcasting and...


The battle in these twice-overseen arenas can take place between people (Bourne), or between people and a force that requires skill and determination to beat (Unstoppable).

*       *       *

These hybrid films can offer a more satisfying rendition of the thrill of sport than a bona fide, unmistakeable sports film. Sport is an important part of a lot of people's lives. We know the performers intimately. A sports film (whether a biography of a real sportsman or not) always has to fight against the veneer of artificiality, the trap of weak documentary reconstruction (Ali, Goal!, Wimbledon and so on), when presenting sporting heroes on screen.

They don't move like they would or act like they should. Even in films where sport, or a physically demanding art, isn't the true heart of the story, like in Black Swan, those in the know find it hard to watch an average performance passed off as exceptional.

In fact the only thing that can recreate the real skills and sensations of sport is sport itself. This brand of action films however contains many of those elements that galvanise a sports fan. An action film with the spirit of the sporting experience can properly recreate that buzz of excitement of man pitted against man or against machine and of an uncertain outcome - from the pitch to the stands to the living room.


  1. Sport’s films, aye? Interesting. I would’ve never thought to liken THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM to such an analogy. I’ve only seen it once and didn’t much care for it, nor did I favor THE BOURNE SUPREMACY. I enjoyed the first one, however. It was nowhere near as dreary a viewing experience, as there was still a certain, albeit minimal, lightness of touch about it. Watching the Greengrass sequels is like watching a bunch of people go to work with zero enthusiasm and Damon comes across like a total drone. But I reckon they were following through with the character’s pursuit and further isolation, and the bleakness was merely a product of that.

    With UNSTOPPABLE the analogy rings true, especially with today’s hyper-edited/hyper-graphical sports coverage sensibility. I’ve long since recognized the way Tony Scott reshapes of events of his films into a multi media and heavily commercialized reality (I mention this in own review), and his love for the sporting and spectator structure goes all the way back to the shamelessly entertaining DAYS OF THUNDER, then later with the preposterous but no less intriguing THE FAN. Mr. Pink Hat is a favorite of mine – I can go on an on about this guy. He’s taken his commercialist background down varying paths, exploring it artistically, trying different things visually. Most think that DOMINO is a total disaster. It is, in a way. But I love it. As do I love DEJA VU–even more than MINORITY REPORT–and I absolutely adore his Mexico filtered soap tragedy REVENGE.

    But I’m curious: if the ‘sports movie’ is one kind of blueprint for the action genre, are there any others you can think of?

  2. I haven't seen many of Tony Scott's films but I do recognise that they are more interesting and enjoyable than they are generally given credit for.

    I tend to enjoy films with this particular structure - though that might be the quality of other aspects of the storytelling of course.

    REVENGE is one that has completely passed me by.

    I can't think of other action movie blueprints taken from or evolved from other genres at the moment but I'll come back to you/it. There are many patterns indeed.

    The Bourne Ultimatum is one of the best action films I've seen.

  3. Lovely topic here, Stephen.

    Yes, it's no coincidence that sports form a vital ingredient in genre moviemaking, especially boxing since the sport itself is like humans: violence controlled and streamlined within a boundary.


  4. Thanks JAFB.

    "...violence controlled and streamlined within a boundary"

    Beautifully put. That's quite right.

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