In which we find out that Agent Smith is not just the president of the Agent Smith Fan Club…
4) Neo vs Agent Smith(s)
- Neo, who you know by now. Played by Keanu Reeves.
- Armed with: Nothing at first, but eventually he seizes a metal pole to use as a club/staff.
- Agent Smith, the chief antagonist of the first film, now turned rogue and able to reproduce at will by over-writing himself onto other humans and programs. Played by Hugo Weaving with his signature awkward-cool.
The Setup: Fresh off the useless fight with Seraph, Neo has found his way to the Oracle and “talked” with her for a few minutes on a mostly empty playground. The most direct help she provides involves pointing him toward the Merovingian, but much of what she says is arguably a lot of papered-over psychobabble about “choice” and various techno-jargon that is only saved by the smooth delivery of the late Gloria Foster, a fine actress. I have a friend who actually walked out of the theater during this conversation when he heard Keanu say the line “programs hacking programs,” which I still laugh about to this day.
Anyway, it’s not spelled out but it’s pretty clear the Oracle and Seraph know that The Smiths (heh) are coming, because he ushers her out of there with visible urgency. Indeed their exit door barely closes when the old villain belts out his now-famous “Miiiiiister Anderson” from off-screen and is revealed in a slow-motion shot amongst a flock of scattering black birds.
The two have a bit of a macho staredown and discussion, though once again Neo is left mostly reacting for his half of the conversation. Reeves comes off a bit stiff but Weaving deliciously chews through his share of the dialogue, drawling out his lines in a way that’s so fun you almost don’t mind that the exposition about his new state raises more questions than it answers. The Wachowskis would have fit in quite well with the writers’ room on Lost.
As Smith starts in on a mini-monologue about “purpose,” he reveals the presence of all his cloned selves, who move in on Neo one at a time and take turns picking up lines from the speech. When there’s enough of them surrounding Neo, they seize the hero and attempt to assimilate him, but for once, resistance is not futile; Neo, it seems, is uniquely able to counter the virus’ infection process. As soon as he finishes with that, things get physical.
[I’ll note that this is the FOURTH fight in the movie, with the previous three basically amounting to different arrangements of Nothingburger. An action audience oughtn’t have to wait so long for a genuine setpiece.]
The Fight: We go from zero to Fight Scene in no time flat. Don Davis’ unique and frantic musical accompaniment for the sequence (known to the production crew as “the Burly Brawl”) kicks in immediately, as does the crazy-intricate choreography.
It’s hard to provide an accurate blow-by-blow because there are just so many blows. The fight almost never stops moving, and neither does Neo: every Smith he defends against leaves him open to another, every hole he opens up is instantly filled, and every new bit of ground he goes to only gets him re-surrounded. It’s brutal.
But in a way, it’s not. As with some of the previous fights, Neo never looks like he’s all that hurt by this, just stymied. Certainly this can be partly attributed to the fact that Neo is easily more powerful than any one (or any dozen) of his adversaries here so all they can do is chip away at him slowly, but still, a bit of that visceral thrill is lost. Neo’s blows don’t seem to really hurt Smith either, but of course that makes sense and was already the norm in the first movie.
So what you have here is a fight with a million unhurtable guys teaming up against one super guy whom they can barely hurt. What the fight loses in viscerality it has to make up for in technical complexity, which it largely does– with a few outrageous exceptions, but we’ll get there.
As stated earlier, it’s chaotic. Neo’s constant motion and even his taking of the occasional blow never convey that he’s anything less than a powerful & brilliant fighter. No matter how close they get to him he always seems to be ready with a clever counter or reversal; it looks as if he’s planning his attacks when he actually should be entirely reactive to the army of bad guys around him. Smiths get kicked, punched, bashed into the scenery and thrown into each other. It’s like a big, silly, intricate ballet. All the while, ever more Smiths are streaming in; the fight starts with about a dozen and finishes with nearly a hundred.
It’s not perfect, though. Some of the wire work is a bit floaty and obvious, many times the various Smiths seem more intent on simply grabbing Neo rather than actually hitting him, and throughout the entire fight you never once see a bunch of Smith corpses lying about. Do they flicker away like defeated foes in a video game?
There’s a nice little interlude early on where a bystander comes through and, registering the impossible scene, is immediately transformed into a regular Agent. The Agent is immediately accosted by an arriving Smith, and the dialogue that ensues is just so cheesily memorable, again largely thanks to Hugo Weaving’s delightful arrogance:
Smith: “Yes, me!” [punches into Agent and assimilates him] “Me, me, me….”
New Smith: “Me too!”
As more reinforcements arrive things start to get a bit desperate for Neo, and he is able to temporarily even the odds a bit by ripping a tetherball pole from the ground and using it as a makeshift weapon. It’s quite effective, especially when he does this thing where he shoves it back into the ground and kicks all the surrounding Smiths as he spins along it horizontally, turning himself into a sprinkler of violence:
The pole, however, brings about the scene’s most crippling flaw: awful CGI. As soon as Neo jumps into the crowd with his new whoop-ass stick, both he and all his adversaries are rendered into computer-generated simulacra. It’s the kind of thing that works well enough in brief doses and especially for shots like the aforementioned spinning move that would have been near-impossible to pull off in live action, but inexplicably, the filmmakers choose to KEEP using it even for things they could have had the actors do on their own.
So while Neo and the Smiths are merely jumping around and kicking each other, they’re bouncing around unrealistically like something out of a Gamecube cut scene/Polar Express movie/Gumby cartoon. It was pathetically unconvincing ten years ago and is even more so today. There are several instances where the action nearly grinds to a halt in the Wachowskis’ trademark super slow-motion, almost like it’s deliberately rubbing in how fake this all is.
The filmmaking goes back to live-action eventually, but insists on diving right back into that Uncanny Valley repeatedly– in fact, after Neo grabs his makeshift staff, the remainder of the fight is more CGI than real. More machine now than man, twisted & evil.
Through all this, Neo puts up a good fight with his staff but eventually loses it to the ever-increasing attack of the clones. Unarmed, he’s quickly overwhelmed and attempts to escape, but is stymied by the fiendishly simple tactic of all the Smiths dogpiling him at once. In a deliberate recall of the first film, one of the Smith legion speaks a little bit about the “inevitability” of Neo’s defeat, but he’s as wrong this time as he was last time. In a rather cartoon-like burst of strength Neo repels all his adversaries at once, and even tosses a lingering clinger into his fellows with an accompanying “bowling ball hitting the pins” sound. It’s so overtly silly you can’t help but love it.
Neo takes advantage of the brief respite to summon enough energy to launch into the air and fly away, leaving the army of Smiths to sulk on the ground quietly. Close one.
The fight’s a strange mix of awesome and infuriating. In certain ways the scene is a special effects marvel, because (as far as the non-CGI scenes are concerned anyway) not once do you ever doubt that every single one of the Smiths is Hugo Weaving, even though you know intellectually that there is only ONE Hugo Weaving and he can’t have been in all those places at the same time. Often, the best type of special effect is the one you can’t even tell is a special effect, and the face-swapping techniques & camera tricks the production team pulled off are that kind of perfect (eat your heart out, Parent Trap). But they shouldn’t have been so proud of the technological terror they constructed here, because the full-body simulation CGI is as obtrusive as the face-swapping isn’t. It’s one of those decisions that’s such a colossal miscalculation you can’t believe it showed up in a major motion picture.
Bloodless yet beautiful chaos, painfully marred by a hubristic faith in their tech. It averages out to…
Coming Attractions: Good times with weapons.