The Bourne Ultimatum is the best action film of the year and is a textbook case for how to write in this very popular form. Let’s look at just a few of the techniques writers Tony Gilroy, Scott Burns, and George Nolfi use.
The first element that stands out in The Bourne Ultimatum is the hero’s strong need. Need is the one of the seven major structure steps in any good story, and yet it is missing from most action films, where the hero is a paragon of virtue or a superhero. Thatâs a huge mistake, because need is what makes the story matter. Itâs personal, to the hero and to the audience. Need is what unifies a story under the surface, so the action film becomes more than just a series of stunts.
In The Bourne Ultimatum, the hero, Jason Bourne, has both a psychological and a moral need. Psychologically, he must figure out who he is. Morally, he feels deep guilt about all the people he has killed and must try to make amends. The psychological need has been present from the first Bourne film (and novel), and is indeed central to the high concept premise of the series. The moral need is unique to this film and makes the hero seem like a real person, in spite of his almost super-human fighting abilities.
A second major structural technique the writers use in this film is a double desire line laid over a single track. Normally you want to avoid two desire lines, because then you have two spines and the story falls apart. But here, the writers give Bourne two contradictory desires, to seek and avoid. He wants to find out who at the CIA has done this to him and he must avoid those same people because they are trying to kill him. This is a classic predicament: going after A makes it much more difficult to accomplish B; going after B makes it much more difficult to accomplish A. (Ironically this is the same technique used in creating the sitcom desire line).
Notice, instead of creating two separate desire lines, this technique creates a push-pull effect along a single track and places the hero under extreme pressure. It also gives the story a very strong spine on which to hang a number of big action set pieces without losing plot and momentum.
This brings up the biggest mistake most action writers make: they donât know how to create action without killing the plot. There are a lot of reasons for this. One has to do with how you set up the opposition. Most action opponents are all-powerful and evil. That makes them dull. But more importantly, everything about them is right on the surface. Result: no surprise and no plot.
In the Bourne films, the opposition is very powerful. But most of it is hidden under the surface. There are layers upon layers that Bourne must uncover. In Ultimatum, he continues to dig into the corrupt CIA that made him the killing machine that he is. And he has both ongoing opponents, like the David Strathairn character, as well as a succession of new assassins trying to kill him. All of this contributes to a plot that is much better than we get in most action films.
Action stories are among the most underestimated of all genres, because they seem to charge full speed down a single straight line. Thatâs why so many bad ones are written. A good action film, like The Bourne Ultimatum, is like an athlete who is so talented you donât see the myriad of techniques he has hidden under the surface. If this is your form, take a look at the Action Story Class, and study films like this one for the techniques that make this tough form look easy.