2) Neo vs Agents
- Neo, hero of the first film and savior of the human race finally having claimed his destiny… or so he thinks. Played by Keanu Reeves.
- Armed with: Neo’s powers as the anagrammatical “One” grant him superior strength, speed, durability, reaction time, etc. That’s just counting what he uses in this fight and not getting into his powers of flight, limited telekinesis, “code vision” etc. More on that in a moment.
- Agent Johnson, Agent Thompson and Agent Jackson. The three new Agents (replacing the first film’s Smith, Jones and Brown) are briefly recognized by Neo as “upgrades” to the previous model, presumably as a handwave explanation for why it’s not even MORE easy for him to beat them. I once read a Matrix wiki editor’s explanation that the upgraded Agent model traded advanced power for diminished intelligence/situational awareness, but I suspect that’s fanwankery because I doubt the machine overlords operate on a system of limited “skill point” distribution like in a tabletop RPG. Anyway, they *are* all noticeably taller. Played by Daniel Bernhardt, Matt McColm and David Kilde.
- Armed with: Presumably they have the standard-issue Agent handguns, but they don’t use them. After all, Neo can stop bullets… and only bullets. So punching & kicking would still work, in theory.
This leads into one of the main gripes I (and few others, it seems) have with the Matrix sequels: the furious backpedaling the Wachowskis did about what being “The One” means. At the end of the first movie, Neo pulls off several seemingly impossible feats as part of assuming his destiny and completely transgressing the boundaries of his digital prison: he stops bullets because he “knows” they’re not real, he effortlessly parries all of Smith’s blows because he can bypass all the Matrix’s limitations on speed, and he flies away at the end because the world’s gravity has no meaning to him.
All those things he did were mere manifestations of his overall cyber-deity status, but the sequels posit that The One actually has a very narrow power set, limited mostly to what we saw him do at the end of The Matrix. Now we “learn” that Neo stopped bullets, moved fast enough to block lots of punches and flew because… he has the very specific powers of stopping bullets, moving really fast and flying. It’s a maddeningly obtuse way of rewriting the films’ history. I understand why the Wachowskis did it: if Neo had been basically God rather than merely another “superhero,” there would be no believable physical challenges for him in the sequels… but then, if the only way you can make an interesting sequel is to lie about what happened at the end of your first film, maybe that’s a sign you shouldn’t be making that sequel. Sometimes I feel like Annie Wilkes: “He didn’t get out of the caca-doody car!”
The Setup: Neo, Morpheus, and many others are attending an in-Matrix meeting regarding some really troubling intelligence reports. Neo’s called out of it when he has a visitor at the door in the form of rogue Agent Smith, who left him a cryptic message in the form his old discarded earpiece. Neo misses Smith, but arrives in time to see through the door and realize that three different Agents are about to arrive. He warns off the rest of the redpills and faces off the new arrivals alone.
Neo’s faux-casual “Hiya, fellas” after they break the door down sounds a bit stilted, but the way the Agents talk amongst themselves in short, rapid-fire sentences– reminiscent of the way twins in kids’ movies finish each others’ sentences– is creepily amusing.
The Fight: Thompson first lunges out on his own with a few exploratory attacks, which Neo dodges & blocks with literally one hand behind his back. Many of Thompson’s moves seem unnecessarily fancy, in a way we never really saw the Agents behave during physical action scenes in the first movie– Smith came off as deadly and skilled, yes, but he was never ostentatious, at least not in terms of martial arts. Agents aren’t supposed to be badass martial artists, they’re supposed to be efficient killing machines. Some of that might be owed to the fact the power imbalance has changed, so it’s the Agents flailing desperately against the humans, but that only goes so far. Cool moves like spin kicks and so forth are all too human; it’s a bit incongruous to see an Agent using them. It’s one of many touches, both big and small, in these films that made audiences feel like the Wachowskis had lost their way.
Thompson finally grabs Neo’s wrist (the contact seems to be what clues him off to the trio’s “upgraded” nature) and the fight kicks off in earnest from there, with the other two joining the fray and Don Davis’ musical score kicking in.
Even against the superior models, the fight’s all too easy for Neo. He’s constantly one step ahead of them, avoiding their attacks and even using their few successful moves (mostly in terms of their throws & shoves giving him momentum; not once is he ever struck) against them. In fact, Neo’s SO successful that on closer examination of the fight, it’s harder to tell whether this is achieved by good he is or by how often his enemies seem to “coincidentally” happen to facilitate him. The most egregious example is also the most notable move of the fight, where Neo is launched in the air by an Agent but instead grabs a light fixture & swing around on it horizontally, using the momentum of the swing to kick an Agent who was jumping at him. Why was the Agent right there at that exact time in Neo’s brief airborne shenanigans, if not to line himself up perfectly to get kicked?
It’s all a bit over-choreographed, and self-consciously “cool.” This will be a running theme throughout the second and third movies: whereas the original drew strength from a seemingly effortless confidence, the sequels just seem arrogant or full of themselves– more like posers. Such a fine yet crucial distinction.
Also, as much as it works on a technical level (even when you can see the seams, the choreography still impresses), the fight feels a bit toothless, weightless, insubstantial. Neo’s out-maneuvering his adversaries and hitting them hard, but for some reason the impacts just don’t sell, they don’t look like they hurt. To a certain extent that’s understandable because the Agents are just computer programs and while they can be damaged they cannot feel pain, but you still find yourself missing a certain sense of punishment, of raw and visceral force being meted out. Paradoxically, the fight is disappointingly short AND boringly long; too brief to be a genuinely exciting struggle, but not brutal enough to be a gleeful beatdown.
Still, it is definitely a “Matrix” fight. Gravity is selectively defied via some well-applied wire work, slow-motion abounds, and plenty of kung is fu’d. It’s just not enough.
Recommended Links: Long-time fans of the actor will remember that Keanu IS secretly an “agent,” himself.
Coming Attractions: Seraph apologizes to Neo. He ought to apologize to the audience.