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March 7, 2019

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

Stop trying to hit me

At the end of this month, in keeping with the horrifying march of time, The Matrix turns 20 years old. It's hard to overstate how mind-blowing it was for me, a high-schooler at the time, when the Wachowski sisters' now-classic marched into theaters: combining entirely new effects techniques with Hong Kong wire-work martial arts, it's still a stylish and mesmerizing tour de force.

The sequels... are not. Indeed, little of the Wachowski's post-Matrix output has been great, although there's certainly a die-hard contingent that argues for Speed Racer and Sense8. But in rewatching them this month, I've been struck by the ways that Reloaded and Revolutions almost feel like the work of entirely different filmmakers, ones who have thrown away one of their most powerful storytelling tools. By that, I mean the fight scenes.

The Matrix has a few set-piece fight scenes, and they're not all golden. The lobby gunfight, for example, doesn't hold up nearly as well on rewatch. But at their best, the movie's action segments deftly thread a needle between "cool to watch" and "actively communicating plot." Take, for example, the opening chase between Trinity, some hapless cops, and a pair of agents:

In a few minutes, we learn that A) Trinity is unbelievably dangerous, and B) however competent she is, she's utterly terrified by the agents. We also start to see hints of their character: one side engaged in agile, skilled hit-and-run tactics, while the authorities bully through on raw power. And we get the sense that while there are powers at work here, it's not the domain of magic spells. Instead, Trinity's escape bends the laws of time and space — in a real way, to be able to manipulate the Matrix is to be able to control the camera itself.

But speaking of rules that are can be bent or broken, we soon get to the famous dojo training sequence:

I love the over-the-top kung fu poses that start each exchange, since they're such a neat little way of expressing Neo's distinct emotional progress through the scene: nervousness, overconfidence, determination, fear, self-doubt, and finally awareness. Fishburne absolutely sells his lines ("You think that's air you're breathing now...?"), but the dialog itself is almost superfluous.

The trash-as-tumbleweed is a nice touch to start the last big brawl of the movie, as is the Terminator-esque destruction of Smith's sunglasses. But pay close attention to the specific choreography here: Smith's movements are, again, all power and no technique. During the fight, he hardly even blocks, and there aren't any fancy flips or kicks. But halfway through, after the first big knock-down, Neo starts to use the agent's own attack routines against him, while adding his own improvisations and style at the end of each sequence. One of these characters is dynamic and flexible, and one of them is... well, a machine. We're starting to see the way that the ending will unfold, right here.

What do all these fight scenes have in common? Why are they so good? Well, in part, they're about creating a readable narrative for each character in the shot, driving their action based on the emotional needs of a few distinct participants. Yuen Woo Ping is a master at this — it's practically the defining feature of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, on which he did fight direction a year later and in which almost every scene combines character and action almost seamlessly. Tom Breihan compares it to the role that song-and-dance numbers play in a musical in his History of Violence series, and he's absolutely right. Even without subtitles or knowledge of Mandarin, this scene is beautifully eloquent:

By contrast, three years later, The Matrix Reloaded made its centerpiece the so-called "burly brawl," in which a hundred Agent Smiths swarm Neo in an empty lot:

The tech wasn't there for the fight the Wachowskis wanted to show — digital Keanu is plasticky and weirdly out-of-proportion, while Hugo Weaving's dopplegangers only get a couple of expressions — but even if they had modern, Marvel-era rendering, this still wouldn't be a satisfying scene. With so many ambiguous opponents, we're unable to learn anything about Neo or Smith here. There's no mental growth or relationship between two people — just more disposable mooks to get punched. "More" is not a character beat. But for this movie and for Revolutions, the Wachowskis seemed to be convinced that it was.

At the end of the day, none of that makes the first movie any less impressive. It's just a shame that for all the work that went into imitating bullet time or tinting things green, almost nobody ripped off the low-tech narrative choices that The Matrix made. Yuen Woo Ping went back to Hong Kong, and Hollywood pivoted to The Fast and the Furious a few years later.

But not to end on a completely down note, there is one person who I think actually got it, and that's Keanu Reeves himself. The John Wick movies certainly have glimmers of it, even if the fashion has swung from wuxia to MMA. And Reeves' directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi is practically an homage to the physicality of the movie that made him an action star. If there is, in fact, a plan to reboot The Matrix as a new franchise, I legitimately think they should put Neo himself in the director's chair. It might be the best way to capture that magic one more time.

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