Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (fight 2 of 3)

“I do hope there’s more of them.”

There’s always more, buddy.

[Note: It was very difficult for me to find any pictures of this battle online. Therefore I’m going just going to share unrelated images from the movie which I find amusing.]

Here’s Raphael being comatose in a bathtub.

2) TMNT vs Foot Clan (rematch)

The Fighters:

  • Leonardo. Leads. Played by David Forman and Brian Tochi.
  • Raphael. Cool but rude. Played by Josh Pais.
  • Michelangelo. A party dude. Played by Michelan Sisti and Robbie Rist.
  • Donatello. Does machines. Played by Leif Tilden and Corey Feldman.
  • The Foot Clan. Hapless conscripts in Shredder’s ninja-thief-army-family. Played by various stunt men in black clothes.

They’re all armed the same as before. As a side dish, Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) has a brief tangle with Master Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata) while rescuing Splinter.

The Setup: Fully recovered and filled with renewed purpose, the four turtles have come back from their rural retreat and reclaimed their home in preparation to hunt down the Foot. The Foot, of course, has been looking for them, and an impromptu visit from a conflicted Danny inadvertently tips off the Shredder that the Turtles are back in town. The Foot arrive in full force but their amphibian adversaries seems to have anticipated their arrival (when they woke up and saw that Danny was missing, I suppose? Even sewer-dwelling mutants know not to trust a ginger), and are ready to give their opponents a surprise.

Meanwhile, with nearly all of the official Foot soldiers cleared out of their warehouse headquarters, Danny and Casey Jones (who followed Danny out there) are left to free Splinter before his ordered execution.

The Fight: There’s a great build-up here with several shots of the Foot Clan streaming en masse into the sewers from multiple entrances. About a dozen of them converge on the turtles’ lair but find it seemingly empty, until the surrounding pipes mysteriously burst open and flood the area in steam. When it clears, the Foot are all knocked out and the four heroes are standing about, cockily– Raph in particular seems fittingly pleased to be turning the tables on his erstwhile tormentors. It’s a good reminder that the heroes are not just martial artists but ninjas, cleverly utilizing their environment and striking foes from the proverbial shadows.

The second wave arrives just as the scene cuts away to Casey and Danny freeing Splinter, and the musical score does a neat trick here where it dies down just as the scene changes, making you think that we’re cutting away from excitement… only to build back up again as Casey’s scene becomes more important, especially when he turns to find Tatsu waiting behind him with a whole crowd of punks (including a young Sam Rockwell!) as backup.

Here’s Donatello spitting water.

When we rejoin the sewer battle (not right where we left off; it’s clear some time has passed), it’s all over the place– in a good way. The turtles are having merry fun with their prey, and unlike what happened in April’s apartment, their confidence is warranted: here, they’re in control, the four fighting as one once again and on their home turf. They even take time to indulge and play some more, with antics including Michelangelo lining up one chump juuuuuust right so that April can give him a gratuitous conk on the head.

The action cuts again to Casey getting positively walloped by Tatsu– Jones is a good brawler, but he’s little match for a seasoned veteran like Tatsu. He gets beaten so badly (Koteas sells the pain as well as the comedy, acting alternately defiant and confused), but turns things around with two quick moves after he stumbles across a golf club. Bludgeon-ready sports equipment is to Casey Jones what spinach is to Popeye.

When the action revisits the turtles the fight has expanded to the tunnels outside the sewers, with the enemy scrambled and on the defensive. They have such control of the battle they’re even doing stupid stuff like having Don bash foes left & right while zooming along on a skateboard (I can only imagine how hard that was to film with that costume). There’s a brief switch back to the aftermath of the warehouse fight for a dramatic beat, and when we return the Foot are in full-fledged retreat, pouring out of the same entrances in panic that they had marched through confidently not so long ago. The music even switches up to the group’s main theme (it played early in the movie as they returned home), the tune’s casual nature underscoring just how effortless and fun this is for our heroes. The streets are oddly empty even for this time of night– isn’t New York supposed to be the city that never sleeps? I don’t think even Wilmington, North Carolina (where this was actually filmed; I’ve been there and it rules) is this empty in the early morning, but then I suppose it’s plausible anyone who was around when they saw a ninja army fighting four karate monsters quite wisely decided to leave the area. And, in a nice touch I hadn’t remembered/noticed earlier, the garbage truck that will play a role later in the climax can be seen pulling up in the background of one part of the scene.

Here's Judith Hoag making a funny face.

Here’s Judith Hoag making a funny face.

All that cutting back & forth between this fight and the Casey/Splinter/Tatsu stuff served a secondary purpose of masking geographical transitions. Every time we return to the turtles’ fight, they’re on different terrain: they steadily push back their enemy from their lair to the sewer tunnels to the surface streets and now finally to the roof of a nearby building. A very smart cinematic play that conveys once again how much the Turtles are in control, while also giving the sense of the battle going on for an unknown amount of time longer than what we see on screen. I wondered this time watching it if the Foot’s retreat was actually deliberate and part of a plan to lure the turtles to where Shredder was waiting, but based on how much of a whooping they all take there’s no reason to suspect the pushback isn’t exactly what it looks like. Shredder could have confronted them earlier if he’d wanted.

The gradual climb up the rooftop is fun too, showcasing the action now happening on separate planes as the turtles drive the Foot upwards via the fire escapes. Reuniting on the roof they finish off the last of the stragglers and seem actively disappointed that there’s not more misguided teens to beat up. Little do they know they’re in for the boss fight.

Although the stakes are low in this one it’s hard not to have a good time watching it. The heroes’ enthusiasm is infectious as they kick ass across multiple stories, the choreography is pretty sharp & creative, and the aforementioned cross-cutting works well.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Shredding.

Here’s the world’s lamest Shredder costume.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (fight 1 of 3)

This is not a “great” movie. It is, however, a movie far greater than it has any right to be.

The Ninja Turtles were originally born quite literally out of a drunken late-night joke-doodle that got turned into a one-shot indie comic (which satirized a lot of then-popular comic series, especially Frank Miller’s Daredevil), later expanded into a gritty pulp series and exploded into popularity thanks to a rather crappy kids’ cartoon. The franchise’s cinematic debut was a low-budget indie with no big stars and had stunt men doing martial arts moves in ungainly costumes; the fact that it ended up being a reasonably entertaining, mostly non-insulting movie that is surprisingly re-watchable and even makes a serious effort at genuine themes & characterization… that’s not just impressive, that’s miraculous.

And all this in the service of a concept that is frankly absurd. Wonderfully absurd, but absurd nonetheless. This makes writing about it even quasi-seriously a weird endeavor, so bear with me.

Also, I love this movie, turtle warts and all. I saw it four times in the theater when I was nine and probably about a hundred more in all the years since. I will try to be as objective as I can, but keep in mind that if you don’t like this movie then you’re terrible and I hate you.

[Note: The earlier fights of Casey vs Raph and Raph blitzing a handful of Foot in the subway station won’t count, as they are too halting/comedic and too brief, respectively.]

1) TMNT and Casey Jones vs Foot Clan (round one)

The Fighters:

  • Leonardo, de facto field leader of the Turtles, the most responsible and probably the most skilled. Played by David Forman and voiced by Brian Tochi.
    • Armed with: dual katanas. Sometimes called “ninjato” a ninja-like variation of the katana, but those are not a real thing, so we’ll call them katanas.
  • Raphael, the strongest and moodiest of the quartet. Also the only one with an identifiable New York accent. Played by Josh Pais both physically and vocally.
    • Armed with: dual sais, meant for stabbing and sword-breaking. Not much use to him here.
  • Michelangelo, the most unfocused and humorous of the brothers. Being the most overtly comedic he was the favorite of pretty much every child back in the day, but as you grow up you tire of Mikey’s showy antics, and pick a different favorite turtle. (Which, if you’re awesome, is Donatello.) Played by Michelan Sisti and voiced by Robbie Rist.
    • Armed with: dual nunchaku, aka “nunchucks” if you’re in a hurry or under twelve. The weapon’s popularity can largely be attributed to pop culture; prior to the movies, real soldiers and martial artists would rarely use them, as they’re impractical and nearly as dangerous to the user as they are to his opponent.
  • Donatello, the smartest and most laid back of the Turtles. Though he’s not as silly as Michelangelo he spends much time bonding with him, so as to not get caught up in the eternal Leo/Raph melodrama. Played by Leif Tilden and voiced by Corey Feldman, of all people.
    • Armed with: a single wooden bo staff.
  • Casey Jones, a one-time professional hockey player turned sports-themed vigilante. Sort of frenemies with Raphael, since the two clashed earlier in the film over Casey going too far in beating up a couple purse-snatchers. Easily the second most awesome movie character to sport a hockey mask. Played by Elias Koteas, who’s a delight.
    • Armed with: he normally carries all sorts of sporting equipment but here he limits himself to just his favorite weapon, a wooden hockey stick.
  • Foot Ninjas, several dozen of them. Though a few might be more veteran warriors brought over from the old country, the majority are likely teenagers who have been taught just enough karate to be a nuisance. Against the Turtles (who have trained their entire lives) they’re basically cannon fodder, but troublesome in large numbers. They’re led by Shredder’s second-in-command, Master Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata), if your definition of “leading” means grunting a lot and occasionally saying “Attack!” (Still a better leader than most politicians, HEY-O)
    • Armed with: all manner of weapons including swords, nunchaku, clubs, and axes.

The Turtles’ friend and frequent rescuee April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) is also present, though she doesn’t factor much in the fight either way– she just passively guards Raph’s unconscious body with a stick.

“I’m contributing!”

The Setup: Ever since Raphael made the rather un-ninja-ly mistake of letting himself be followed back to the Turtles’ hideout, the foursome have been hiding out at April’s loft apartment (directly above an old antique shop that belonged to her family) and trying to figure out where their master/father figure Splinter has been taken.

Unfortunately, Danny, April’s boss’ son and a soulless backstabbing ginger, has sold out the Turtles’ location to the Foot Clan. They pick the right moment to strike (or maybe not, since it’s broad daylight), first converging on Raphael as he stalks alone on the rooftop, having a temper tantrum.

The Fight: Starts out slow, but builds to a crescendo. First we see Raphael pouting on the roof (as does Casey, fiddling with a police scanner atop a neighboring building) unknowingly being surrounded by Foot soldiers– again, Raph’s skills of detection and evasion are most definitely not up to ninja snuff. There’s a lot of cross-cutting between the fight that ensues against April talking with the turtles downstairs, the latter group unfortunately ignorant of Raph’s circumstances.

This provides opportunity for a lot of attempts at humorous mash-ups between the other protagonists’ innocent dialogue against bad things happening to Raphael (e.g., Don saying “He does this all the time. He likes it!” just before we see Raph getting painfully dragged down stone stairs, Michelangelo scaring Leonardo with clashing cymbals just as a Foot ninja double-punches Raph’s head in a similar motion, etc). Your personal affection for this will vary depending on your patience for such visual punning, but you have to at least admit it’s a good way to leaven the surprising brutality of what’s actually happening; remember, this is supposed to be a kids‘ movie, and most kids’ movies don’t have scenes where fifty people beat the hero into a coma.

Despite losing his sais early on (we see them get tossed off the roof in slow-mo. Curiously, he continues to battle unarmed, not even trying to pick up any downed Foot soldier’s weapon), Raph puts up a good fight at first, so effortlessly overpowering his attackers that he feels cocky enough to quip “I get it, you guys must be studying from the Abridged Book of Ninja Fighting!” which is one of several jokes in this movie I didn’t understand when I was first saw it. However, the Foot’s ever-increasing numbers quickly close the skill gap, and things get worse for the moodiest turtle.

Zerg rush

This ends with Raphael being tossed through a skylight (just as Donatello says his brother should “drop in” in any moment now, yuk yuk), barely alive. In the brief face-off between the remaining turtles and the small army surrounding them, Michelangelo puts aside the many worries he should be attending to (including his nearly dead brother) and takes a minute to have a showoff contest with a nunchaku-wielding Foot solider. I suppose the gag might have been intended as a way to lull the bad guys into complacency, because it leads immediately to Donatello vaulting into action like a boss and wailing on bad guys’ faces.

From here the fight is a strange mix of silly antics and crushing odds. The turtles are clearly superior fighters but as with what happened to Raph, the Foot’s numbers (especially in such enclosed terrain) gradually overwhelm them, so nearly every sequence of one of the heroes dishing out punishment is capped by him getting subsequently blindsided or surrounded. And there are a lot of gags involved, mostly using the furniture of April’s apartment and, later, the knickknacks in her family’s old shop: Leo grabs onto a bicycle hanging from the ceiling and kicks opponents while suspended in the air, Mike grabs those cymbals again and claps them against a Foot ninja’s ears, etc. I suppose that as with the cross-cutting during Raph’s beating this is used to lighten up the desperate circumstances for viewers, but the heroes are facing inevitable defeat and their brother is comatose in the corner; the cockiness is unwarranted and the playfulness is inappropriate. Whistling in the dark only goes so far.

On a similar note, this is where the movie first encounters one of its main obstacles: it’s a children’s movie and therefore almost nobody should ever get killed or maimed, yet at least two of the turtles use weapons that are designed for lethality. The sequel got around this problem by having the heroes almost never use their weapons, and the 80s cartoon dodged it by making all the Foot ninjas into (sigh) robots. This movie handles the paradox by having Leo & Raph use their cutty/stabby implements mainly to block opponents’ weapons or force them to dodge; the main damage they dish out comes from their fists & feet. It mostly works (though the movie still received some knocks for its relatively excessive violence, including from turtle-suit designer Jim Henson). And it leads to what’s probably my favorite gag of the fight: Leo making several consecutive katana-swings at a Foot soldier who keeps ducking them, then saying “gotcha!” when the bad guy ducks again at a fakeout.

The game changes a bit when the floor, weakened by repeated axe strikes, collapses after several Foot reinforcements drop in from the broken skylight, sending everybody falling to April’s antique store below… where they’re greeted by Tatsu and another squad of Foot.

One of whom thinks he’s at a rock concert, apparently.

The music resumes its same playful yet frantic tune, faster than ever, and you can see the battle turn even worse against the heroes, even though some of those gag attacks are still deployed. Eventually, not long after Mike gurgles about how they could really use Raph right about now, the action stops again with the arrival of Casey Jones, backlit and pissed off but still willing to stop & flirt with April.

“ki ki ki, ma ma ma….”

(Once again, this occasions a joke I didn’t understand until years later, since I knew what neither “Wayne Gretzky” nor “steroids” were at age nine.)

Casey’s a valuable addition but too late to turn the tide, especially when an errant axe strike ends up starting a fire. The musical score finally catches up with the dire situation here, and the heroes realize it’s time to run away– fortunately April knows of a hidden panel that allows them to escape. Fittingly, the fight ends with a gag, as Casey overhears a voicemail being left on April’s answering machine (remember those?) that’s dangling from the hole in the ceiling; just as April’s boss finishes firing her by saying “I know this comes as a blow,” the cord snaps and it lands on a Foot head. Cute, but crappy for April, since it means she loses her job just as her home and all her possessions get burned down, and all on account of four weirdos she barely knows.

I like it. Barring the aforementioned brief tangles involving Raphael and the opening attack that’s just a bunch of sound effects in the dark, this is the first time we’ve really seen the titular turtles in action, so it’s kind of ballsy to have that fight be a losing battle, even if that loss is understandable. Considering that the main actors are all wearing heavy rubber suits the martial arts are rather decent, and the jokes work decently if you’re into that sort of thing. The escalating chaos is staged pretty well, as is the sense of the odds the heroes are up against; the defeat doesn’t come as a surprise.

Grade: B

Recommended Links: It’s too bad Obata didn’t get to participate in this fight, because he’s apparently a certified badass in real life.

Coming Attractions: Rematch time, punks.

So……… how did Raph get his sais back?

The Matrix (fight 4 of 4)

think again buddy

4) Neo vs Agent Smith

The Fighters:

  • Neo, the prophesied savior of blah blah blah etc. Much less whiny and unsure than before– paradoxically, this is because, not in spite, of the phony reveal from the Oracle that he’s not The One. Since destiny was not going to make him an amazing hero, he had to make himself one… and Morpheus’ capture necessitated him getting to that lickety split. Played by Keanu Reeves.
    • Armed with: a handgun.
  • Agent Smith, leader of the Matrix’s evil Agent trio. Even without backup he’s more than sufficient to be a deadly threat, as we learned last time.
    • Armed with: also a handgun.

The Setup: Neo & Trinity have successfully saved Morpheus from capture/interrogation, and made their way to an “exit”  from the virtual world– a land line phone in a quiet subway station. Morpheus exits first, but the group’s antics are witnessed by the only other person in the station, an old homeless man. All humans still connected to the Matrix via the machines’ breeding farms can act as unwitting sleeper agents for its cyber enforcers, so when this unfortunate derelict witnesses Morpheus’ disappearing act, he’s overtaken by Agent Smith. The two lovebirds dawdle for so long that Smith has plenty of time to materialize, get his bearings, and take aim at Trinity, who disappears just in time to avoid the bullet that disables the pay phone. Neo is left alone against his most powerful enemy.

The hero contemplates the stairs behind him, but he makes a conscious choice to face Smith head-on rather than make a run for it. Watching at the monitors in reality, Trinity is worried but Morpheus is excited at Neo seemingly ready to embrace his potential. Back in the cyber world, the Wachowskis prep the viewer for the impending clash, overtly using the cinematic language of classic Westerns just as surely as they invoked chop-socky flicks during the training fight: there’s a cheesy musical riff, a dirty newspaper blows across the screen in lieu of a tumbleweed, and mirroring low shots of hero & villain as they stare each other down. Showdown time, pilgrim.

The Fight: Fittingly, considering the Western homage, the two first draw their guns and open fire. Both miss, but they continue to shoot, while also dodging the other’s shots and zig-zagging towards each other. Then they leap in the air and this happens:

The Wachowskis do their by-now-patented slow-mo/rotation thing as the two combatants wrestle & fire in mid-air. All rounds just barely miss and the two fall to the ground, both guns empty. They rise and things get more physical. (No, not THAT way, perv. Go back to your slash fiction.)

Several things are clear early on: Neo is not just better than he was before but also fares even better than Morpheus did against Smith. Smith however is still clearly superior– stronger, faster, and most importantly, being a machine he cannot really feel pain or tire. While neither fighter is really “there,” the blows Neo receives are still wearing down his physical body, whereas each hit that lands on Smith merely staggers him briefly.

Even without that endurance, Smith’s raw power is tremendous; as with the previous fight we get some intimidating shots of Smith punching holes right through hardened brick & plaster. One especially strong blow sends Neo flying back a dozen feet and landing face first. He coughs up blood in both the real and virtual worlds, but marshals his remaining strength and remains defiant, repeating Morpheus’ cocky little taunting gesture, which actually seems to piss off the machine even more.

Neo’s determination is amazing and he presses the frustrated Smith back (his little triple-kick trick actually works this time and he manages to turn a stopped punch into a throat jab), but he is still only human, so Smith is ably to quickly whittle his resistance down. Things get even worse for the hero when he’s pinned against the wall by Smith and pummeled by his 100 mph fists.

Neo’s left too weak to fight back, so when Smith hears an approaching subway train he thinks of a sadistic way to finish off the would-be savior, and takes him down to the tracks. Holding him down as the train draws closer, Smith sinisterly lectures “Mister Anderson” about the inevitability of his death. This shoddy treatment inspires the hero to summon up a last surge of strength, which he uses to leap upwards into the ceiling and dislodge himself from Smith’s grip. He then jumps off the tracks just in time to watch the evil program get flattened by the oncoming train. His name is Neo, jerk.

Good stuff here. The setting is used well, playing on both the plausible isolation as well as the fortuitous presence of trains as a game-changer. As stated previously the choreography (and the actors’ performances) make the power dynamic abundantly clear, though things are not so lopsided as to be a complete beatdown. You can almost feel Neo growing stronger and inching toward his destiny as the fight unfolds. It’s still not enough to stop his implacable foe, but that only serves to set up satisfaction of the power-reversal of their final showdown.

From an entertainment perspective there are limited thrills in watching someone fight a guy who’s basically a brick wall (this fight is certainly less fun and joyful than Neo’s epic sparring session), but it helps that this plays very well into the narrative and character work. Similarly, it’s a little unsatisfying that Neo wins via what’s essentially a cheat. But you can look at it another way and conclude that the hero triumphs through a combination of skill, willpower, and sheer luck; what could be more “human” than that?

[As you probably guessed from the title this is the last of the entries on the first Matrix. The climactic rematch between Neo & Smith is barely even a fight, as it lasts only a few seconds and is utterly effortless on Neo’s part. Good stuff but not worth grading. Goodbye for now, The Matrix.]

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Bossanova!

… Chevy Nova?

The Matrix (fight 3 of 4)

In which things go poorly for Bald Yoda.

I do the same thing whenever I see a spider.

3) Morpheus vs Agent Smith

The Fighters:

  • Morpheus, a leader of the human resistance whose crazy Matrix skills have already been well-established. Played by Laurence Fishburne.
    • Armed with: Nothing.
  • Agent Smith, the point man for the trio of hunter/killer programs who take care of “problems” within the digital world. All these A.I.s are sentient but Smith seems to have the most personality of the three, which manifests itself in a personal animosity against humans and the gleefulness he takes in rubbing them out. Played by Hugo Weaving, in a performance that instantly catapulted him from little-known cult actor to permanent Geek Royalty.
    • Armed with: presumably he has the pistol that all agents manifest with, but he doesn’t use it here. He doesn’t need to.

The Setup: Morpheus & crew are returning from a visit to the Oracle, but end up on the run after being betrayed by one of their own, Cypher (oh, if only he’d clued them into his devious nature, perhaps by picking a name that signaled his intentions were less than transparent!). They’re sneaking through the walls of a hotel when their lead pursuer gets too close, prompting Morpheus to take one for their team so that the rest (especially Neo, whose potential Morpheus is fanatically devoted to) have time to escape. I must say his roar of determination when he smashes through the wall to meet his presumed destiny is quite impressive. He’s left alone with Agent Smith in a bathroom that’s small for a fighting arena but actually quite spacious as a bathroom.

For all they’ve been seen & discussed throughout the movie, this is the most we’ve seen of an Agent so far. The threat of them has been both implicit (Trinity is clearly terrified of them in the opening scene) and explicit (Morpheus flat-out declares that not one human has ever successfully faced down an Agent), but now it’s time to show rather than tell. And how.

The Fight: Hero & villain exchange some tough-guy banter and introduce themselves. “You all look the same to me,” Morpheus growls quasi-racistly after hearing that this agent’s name is Smith. He opens with a headbutt that breaks Smith’s cool guy sunglasses (I believe this is the first time the audience sees Weaving without them, and let’s face it, he’s sort of a weird-looking guy), but Smith counters with several of his own, and ends with a punch that sends Morpheus flying up and into the wall. The Wachowskis use the camera angle to play a simple yet neat perspective trick here– the whole time the two combatants were talking they’d been shot vertically so you get the impression Morpheus was pinning his foe to the wall rather than laying atop him on the ground. When the perspective shifts just as the hero gets launched backward (against the wall the toilet’s attached to), it’s very jarring. Aside from being cool, the effect adds to the disorientation and helplessness the audience is meant to feel on Morpheus’ behalf. He’s out of his element here. (Increasing the creepy factor, Smith rises to his feet in a very unnatural way, without using his arms or any particular momentum; he just kind of rotates 180 degrees completely on his heels.)

Indeed, the fight goes terribly for Morpheus. Many of his blows don’t land, and the ones that do seem to cause Smith only a slight annoyance at best. Meanwhile the resistance leader takes a real clobbering here, absorbing repeated blows and getting tossed into things, including a particularly painful-looking bang to the head on the toilet during a fall. As great as the Wachowskis made Morpheus out to be earlier, he’s spared no dignity here. It’s brutal. I must say that Fishburne sells it all like a champ, showing equal parts pain & determination as he gets covered in plaster and knocked around like a ragdoll. Weaving meanwhile plays it all utterly untroubled, his movements not graceful so much as they are ruthlessly efficient.

With one final crash on the ground, Smith can tell his enemy has been so suitably subdued he doesn’t even need to finish the job. He walks away in disgust and leaves a squad of riot cops to detain poor Morpheus.

It’s not an epic battle but, as the refrain goes, it’s not meant to be; it’s quick, dirty, and mean. Morpheus knowingly bites off more than he can chew, and pays the price for it. All at once the scene conveys Morpheus’ devotion to the cause, the staggering power of the enemy, and the desperate circumstances the remaining heroes are left in.

Grade: B

Recommended Links: Agent Smith has popped up on your screens again lately, as the Wachowskis have licensed the character (played by Weaving) to appear in ads touting General Electric’s medical technology. Because nothing says “edgy transgressive filmmakers who love stories about upending the dominant power structure” like using your creation to shill for an enormous multinational corporation that’s notoriously cozy with the U.S. government.

Coming Attractions: “My name… is NEO!”

Neo Patrick Harris?

The Matrix (fight 2 of 4)

“I know kung fu.”

Just so we get that line out of the way.

What I wouldn’t give for that chair and a USB headport.

2) Neo vs Morpheus

The Fighters:

  • 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.

“Stop trying to hit me, and kiss me! Um, I meant HIT me! I meant to say ‘hit’ both times!”

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.

Grade: A

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.”)

That one went kinda like this, too.

The Matrix (fight 1 of 4)

This movie was kind of a big deal, yeah?

I can see my house from here!

Interesting to go back to it now, with 14 years full of discussion, dissection, influences, knock-offs, jokes and controversial sequels (seriously, the Matrix series would probably be universal fanboy shorthand for “disappointing follow-ups” if George Lucas had never turned to the dark side) having passed. Love it or hate it, it was a landmark movie in countless ways, having brought deeply geeky obsessions like deep sci-fi concepts, fantasy-laden martial arts sequences and Eastern philosophizing to mainstream audiences. Its impacts are still being felt today; if Keanu had never taken the red pill and donned that black leather, would there ever have been an Inception?

A billion gallons of digital ink have already been spilled on the philosophies and construction of The Matrix so I won’t add too many more drops to it here before I get down to business, except to say that what really strikes me now is the movie’s confidence. The Wachowski brothers (before a little carefully-applied surgery and hormone shots made them the Wachowski siblings), on their sophomore filmmaking effort, undertook the massively challenging task of wrapping a number of wacked-out concepts into an entertaining summer blockbuster that was also an R-rated movie based on no existing known property, yet not once does the finished product project anything but absolute self-assurance. It’s that confidence that was a big part of what made so many respond to it.

One of those other important parts, of course, is its bravura action sequence. I’ll be thankfully leaving off on some of those, since a lot of them, such as the lobby fight or Neo’s first encounter with an Agent, are excellent but don’t really constitute what I’m looking for when I’m thinking of “fight scenes.” Fortunately, there’s no shortage of that stuff to work with, either.

1) Trinity vs Unfortunate Cops

The Fighters:

  • Trinity, master hacker and soon-to-be love interest. One of the most deadly members of the human resistance. You have to dig pretty deep to find thematic resonance in her name choice (unlike such obvious ones as Neo, Morpheus, Cypher, Bane, etc. So, what, she’s three people in one? Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in her?), so I assume it’s mostly just because it sounds cool. Played by Carrie-Ann Moss.
    • Armed with: nothing but that sick leather outfit. Does anyone know if it’s actually easy to fight in that stuff? It looks tight to me. Is it constricting, or more limber? I really don’t know. After this scene ends we see her with two hand guns but it’s unknown if she took those from the defeated cops, had them but didn’t use them here, or they were with her but out of reach when the fight started.
  • Three police officers who got more than they bargained for when their lieutenant sent them to capture Trinity, who is a wanted criminal. No names, but you can think of them as Officer Chest Kick, Officer Face Kick, and Officer Shot, if you want. I bet one of them was just two days from retirement. Played by Bernard Ledger, Robert Simper, and Chris Pattinson, according to IMDB.
    • Armed with: service pistols. And flashlights, I guess.

The Setup: Trinity is cornered in a ratty old building by a large number of police. Rather than awaiting for assistance from the sinister Agents, the officer-in-charge sent in three unlucky chumps to apprehend her. There’s three of them, they get her with her back to the wall, they’re armed and she’s not, so it would seem like she’s screwed here. But as Agent Smith calmly chides the lieutenant who jumped the gun, “Your men are already dead.” The movie immediately cuts back to the dingy room where Trinity has her hands up.

The Fight: Our gal immediately takes advantage the officers’ assumption that she’s cooperating. She whips around at lightning speed and uses a chop to break one of the arms that had been reaching to handcuff her. Then she palms him in the face and leaps into the air to do her signature move, which is apparently called the Double Eagle Kick.

The action slows and stops here, while the camera rotates a couple hundred degrees, showing us a multitude of angles while the heroine is seemingly suspended in mid-air. There’s not much practical purpose to this trick (which I believe was achieved by having a lot of special cameras operating simultaneously, and was originally engineered for a Gap commercial), but stylistically it’s a big deal. It’s the Wachowskis announcing Yes, you are seeing what you’re seeing; what she’s doing should be impossible but for her it’s not; this is deliberate and fun and this is the kind of movie we are making, so get used to it. See what I mean about confidence?

Anyway, the kick lands in the big guy’s chest and sends him flying into the wall, so ouch. Problem is the other two officers had been following procedure and standing at a safe distance, which leaves Trinity vulnerable. She makes up for the distance with one of them by kicking her chair into his face, and while that one’s stunned she dodges the other’s gunfire by running up the wall (making good use of the limited light as she moves) and is able to rapidly get behind & around him. Before he knows what’s happening she seizes control of his gun arm, shoots the other standing officer with his comrade’s weapon, and knocks out the poor guy with a vertical kick that goes so high it hits him right in the face.

She makes fast work of all three of them (the whole thing’s over in less than 25 seconds), a fact further underscored by the quick cut to a ceiling shot of Trinity standing tensely amongst the havoc she has so quickly wreaked. It’s so short I considered not including it, but it’s complex and admirable enough that I felt it merited discussion. Although it’s just an appetizer for what’s to come, this fight works excellently as a statement of intent for the movie. The movie’s action and aesthetic style is spelled out, and plot-wise we learn that Trinity can do seemingly impossible things but as amazing as she is there are other people she’s scared of. In one dense little fight (and the scenes surrounding it) the audience picks up a lot of information. It’s slight yet effective. I like it, but there’s better to come.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: A fight that’s most non-heinous.

Pop quiz, hotshot.