“I know kung fu.”
Just so we get that line out of the way.
2) Neo vs Morpheus
- Neo, recently-inducted member of the human resistance and prophesied reincarnation of the man who has complete control of the Matrix. You know that saying “if you believe in yourself, you can do anything”? In the case of Neo within the world of this movie, that’s literally true. Played by Keanu Reeves, who’s a frequent target for jokes but I like the guy.
- Armed with: downloaded martial arts skills.
- Morpheus, a leader of the resistance, captain of the ship the movie largely takes place on, and Public Enemy #1 for our robot overlords. Played by Cowboy Curtis himself, Laurence Fishburne.
- Armed with: presumably all the same downloads as Neo has received, but he has the added advantages of being more experienced and, more importantly, having a more flexible mental state that allows him to better bend the rules of his virtual world.
The Setup: Recently freed from the cyber version of Plato’s Cave, Neo is beginning to adjust to his life, and (in a rather fun sequence) his mind has taken quite well to all its combat updates. Eager to try out his new mad skills, Neo enters a virtual sparring program with Morpheus, which takes on the appearance of a traditional dojo/gym. The program has rules similar to that of the Matrix and, as he advises his student, like any other computer program its “rules” (and therefore the reality they govern) can be tinkered with. He challenges Neo to hit him, if he can.
The Fight: It starts out a little silly, actually, and in a way that’s so over the top I must assume silliness was the intended effect. Both fighters assume exaggerated, cheesy poses, and Don Davis’ musical score trots out some very cliched Eastern drums & cymbal clashes for the first several blows. This adds some levity to the early proceedings, effectively loosening the audience up before reeling them in for what’s going to be a genuinely exhilarating fight. By consciously invoking the well-known tropes of corny kung fu flicks, the filmmakers establish a familiar base, and build from there.
Even their first, brief pass demonstrates a commitment to elaborate, focused choreography… and no small wonder, since the Wachowskis enlisted legendary choreographer Yuen Woo Ping (he had worked for decades in Hong Kong action films and would go on to make the magic happen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to stage their fight scenes. Each series of blows, swings and blocks is intense, fast and complex. Also, here even more so than in the opening fight with Trinity, almost every striking limb is accompanied by a melodramatic whoosh or swish on the soundtrack. It’s cheesy as all get-out, but it works excellently in selling the kinetic power of the fights, and unlike a lot of other movies’ indulging of similar artistic license (say, for example, the way every Indiana Jones punch sounds louder than a watermelon exploding on pavement after being dropped from the tenth floor), it has a sort of in-world justification. The Matrix and its similar programs are quite literally fake, so some aesthetic liberties being taken underscores the world’s inherent artificiality; note that none of these liberties are exercised in the film’s drab, grimy, “real” world.
Neo acts a bit cocky after the first round and drops his faux Eastern discipline for some showboaty hopping & grinning. His puppy dog enthusiasm may be infectious to the audience, but Morpheus remains all business and merely beckons him on, leading to a hand gesture that’s just one of the many things this movie indelibly imprinted on pop culture:
For their second exchange, you can see that Neo is starting to enjoy his newfound skills and the digital playground he uses them in. He opens up with an impossibly high jump during which he launches three consecutive kicks (the wire work here is subtle), and the tempo of the battle increases slightly. But he still can’t hit Morpheus, all of his blows either missing or being blocked. Morpheus ends this round with a distinctive move where he intercepts one of his Neo’s kicks and uses his foot to spin him like a corkscrew, sending him to the ground. Morpheus briefly compliments & encourages his protege, and from there things pick up significantly.
Neo lays back into Morpheus with renewed determination, and when the music abruptly picks up again, it’s no longer the stuff of cheesy kung fu flicks but a more distinctive & hyperactive techno beat, very much in keeping with the movie’s own unique (at the time) style. We quickly cut away from the match to back on the real world of the ship, where supporting player Mouse finds the rest of his comrades in the mess hall and excitedly blurts out “Morpheus is fightin’ Neo!” and they all frantically rush to join in (they’ll continue to spectate the rest of the fight, but not intrusively so). On the one hand it’s quite reasonable for them to be intrigued at watching the new & promising recruit test his skills against the veteran, but what makes the moment work is the more raw, giddy, immature side of it. It’s very… schoolyard— kids eager to see if the new scary student from out of town can beat up the resident alpha male. The characters’ excitement is so palpable that it extends to the viewer. Such a small & simple moment, yet it accomplishes so much.
The moves get even crazier. Not just punches & kicks but all sorts of intricate blocks, last-minute dodges, flips, fancy footwork meant to trip the other, etc. The camera moves around dynamically but not distractingly, tracking the fighters as they take Bruce Dickinson’s advice to heart and really explore the dojo space.
Neo still can’t land a hit on his teacher, though. Morpheus even mixes things up a bit by launching himself hiiiiigh into the air (lots of slow-mo and everything) to come down with a crashing knee which Neo barely dodges.
They clash some more, and Neo tries a similar aerial trick by running straight up a support beam and trying to back-flip behind his opponent. Morpheus is more than ready for it, though, and kicks Neo but good as soon as he lands. He takes this opportunity to ask the downed newbie some illuminating questions, reminding him that physical strength takes a backseat to willpower when you’re plugged into the machine. Even ostensibly vital functions like breathing are just vestigial habits within its boundaries, and clinging to such physical limits will only tie you down. (In a nice touch, from this point on neither of the two are shown to visibly breathe or pant while in this program.)
This begins yet a third distinct portion of the fight, and the music changes up to match it, switching to a rapidly escalating tune connoting excitement & potential. Neo noticeably steps up his game with more ferocious moves and Morpheus continues his Yoda routine, dropping little nuggets of Zen wisdom and encouragement at every turn.
This seems to do the trick and soon Neo’s skills are more crazy than ever. Eventually he’s moving so fast his fists blur like a Super Saiyan:
One of those groovy punches halts less than an inch from Morpheus’ surprised face. He doesn’t hit him, but he could have, if he’d wanted. Probably. He seems almost apprehensive, muttering “I know what you’re trying to do….” The fight ends the only way it can, because Neo is full of potential but, as we will soon learn, is scared about what assuming his destiny could mean. As such the excitement slowly built up throughout the training session doesn’t explode or release, but just bottles up, to be used for later.
What else can I say? This scene’s got it all. Fantastic choreography, excellent camera work, believable acting/stunts, fun music, a brisk pace, smart escalation, and the whole thing plays excellently as characterization for both participants. Unfortunately none of the remaining fights fire on as many cylinders as this one, but we’ll get there.
Recommended Links: It’s become known lately that Keanu Reeves is a genuinely, in fact shockingly, kind & humble human being. Reddit collected a lot of first-hand stories of his unexpected generosity.
He may also be immortal, so there’s that.
On a somewhat less mature note, here is a bunch of scenes from the movie with farts added in. You think that’s air you’re breathing now?
Coming Attractions: Morpheus has the second-worst bathroom encounter of his life. (The first being when he stumbled into the one frequented by the trucker called “Sea Bass.”)