The Matrix Reloaded (fight 6 of 6)

It’s not as cool as this.

6) Morpheus vs Agent Johnson

(I wonder if he’s related to either of the other Agents Johnson?)

The Fighters:

  • Morpheus, who’s been critically under-served in this movie as far as action scenes go. He’s still a major resistance figure and captain of the Nebuchadnezzar, but this movie has a sly reveal that rather than more or less representing the entire resistance (as the audience had assumed), he’s a respected & powerful yet controversial figure, viewed by many other humans as a reckless ideologue. Played by Laurence Fishburne.
    • Armed with: a gun, but it gets knocked away early. A katana sword he lifted from the Merovingian’s place comes in handy about halfway through.
  • Agent Johnson, one of the three upgraded Agents we saw earlier in the movie. Efficient & menacing, but nowhere near Weaving’s iconic antagonist. Played by Daniel Bernhardt.
    • Armed with: again, presumably he has a firearm, but he doesn’t use it.

The Setup: With Neo stranded in a distant mountain range after staying to fight with the Merovingian’s freak squad, it’s up to Morpheus & Trinity to get the Keymaker to safety via a busy freeway. After finally dispatching the ghostly Twins who’d been pursuing them, the heroes still have to contend with Agents, who have spotted them and are quite keen on “deleting” the exiled Keymaker.

Through various action-movie shenanigans, Morpheus and the Keymaker have found themselves on top of a moving tractor-trailer attached to a semi-truck. Before they can get a moment to breathe, however, they’re joined by Agent Johnson. Morpheus sees no option except for a direct confrontation.

The Fight: Well, Morpheus certainly does a lot better here than he did against an Agent last time around, even if he’s still clearly inferior ( “only human”), fighting a losing battle while still not getting really brutalized. It makes sense, of course: given the context of the fight, Johnson doesn’t need to beat Morpheus into submission as Smith did, he merely needs to knock him out of the “ring.”

That environment– on top of a narrow trailer speeding down a crowded freeway– actually does a lot of the heavy lifting for the fight’s excitement, because the Agent can’t really be hurt, Morpheus doesn’t get pwned as bad as before, and, frankly, Lawrence Fishburne doesn’t come off too well in this scene. He’s an excellent actor and kicked ass superbly in the original film, but his fighting here looks awkward and ungainly, less like a true kung fu warrior than an overweight 40-year-old playing one. Reports claim that along with the other actors (including Jada Pinkett-Smith, who fights even less), Fishburne underwent about eight months of additional martial arts training for the sequels; I’d call that a waste because this brief fight is by far the most kung fu-ing that Morpheus does, and it’s quite underwhelming.

It’s not without its merit, or memorable moments. Some excitement is wrung out of Morpheus nearly taking a fall several times (though the sight of him teetering on the edge is sometimes inadvertently comical), and once again our hero tries out some inventive moves to surprise his superior foe.

Johnson looks like Alec Baldwin there, doesn’t he?

Probably the most fun part is when Morpheus, knocked face down near the edge of the trailer, spies the samurai sword he’d previously stabbed into the vehicle’s side in order to make a stepping stone, and some adrenaline surges into the fight when the audience sees that he’s found a way to even the odds. It’s not as raucous a moment as the similar introduction of a katana in Pulp Fiction, but it’s neat. Weirdly (or fittingly if you buy into the theory that this movie is into deliberately disappointing its audience), the discovery of the sword is much more exciting than actually putting it to use: aside from a surprise move that slices the Agent’s tie (“that was a Father’s Day gift!”) and later his cheek, the katana ends up not being much help at all, let alone a game-changer. Morpheus loses it pretty quickly and gets fully knocked off the truck soon after.

Fortunately he’s saved by the timely arrival of Niobe (the aforementioned Mrs. Pinkett-Smith), another resistance captain and Morpheus’ ex-girlfriend, who had been tracking the group on the freeway and “catches” him on the hood of her car. Johnson thinks Morpheus is done for, which allows Morpheus and Niobe the perfect opportunity to get into position for a sneak attack. “Go kick his ass!” Jada approvingly growls; disappointingly, she doesn’t add “tell him my husband said ‘Welcome to Earth!'” but hey, we can’t have everything.

Morpheus’ surprise jump kick knocks Agent Johnson (or more appropriately, his unfortunate human host) onto the asphalt. A dubious victory, perhaps, but the best one he could hope for under the circumstances. Besides, it was only a temporary win, as Morph and the Keymaker are still in a vulnerable position and surrounded by Agents (and many more potential Agents) behind the wheels of two-ton death machines. It’s only thanks to the in-the-nick-of-time arrival of Neo that the pair finally escape from their predicament. Remember all those old Superfriends cartoons where the writers kept thinking up goofy reasons to separate Superman from the other heroes so he couldn’t be around to solve every problem instantly?

As mentioned, it’s underwhelming, but serviceable. The choreography is inventive even if sometimes awkwardly executed, and Don Davis’ music (a repeat/reprise of his previous “fight against the Agents” tune) is also adequate. Not much to truly hate or love, so it’s a shame that while there’s still a good chunk of this movie left, this is the last true fight it has. There’s some light skirmishing in the hallway of “back doors” against The Smiths and a few fragments of Trinity getting beat up by an Agent, but they’re too brief and scattered to really dive into. Also, I’m tired.

Grade: B-

Coming Attractions: The evolution of a legend.

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The Matrix Reloaded (fight 5 of 6)

In which Neo is a very messy house guest.

You won’t be grinning for long, Frenchie

5) Neo vs Merovingian’s Henchmen

The Fighters:

  • Neo, again. Played by Keanu Reeves.
    • Armed with: nothing to start with, but eventually employs several weapons including dual sais, a broadsword, and a spear that gets broken in half and he subsequently uses the two halves as short clubs (or Eskrima).
  • The Merovingian’s henchmen, six of them. One of them, Cain (he was partnered with a guy named Abel. They’re named after the famous Biblical brothers because of no good darn reason I can think of) was in an earlier scene heavily implied to be a vampire, or perhaps a werewolf. The others are also refugee programs from previous versions of the Matrix, most likely encoded as other supernatural creatures. Though they’re no match for Neo they seem to be superior to even the upgraded Agents, even if the Agents dress better. The Merovingian himself is there but he just hangs back and acts snooty. Played by stunt men, with Lambert Wilson hamming it up as the Big M.
    • Armed with: They enter with automatic weapons, but discard those for hand-to-hand combat and, soon enough, a variety of short-range weapons including swords, a trident, a spear, a flail, a staff, dual hooks, a spiked club, etc.

These weirdos.

The Setup: Neo and his crew came to the Merovingian’s hideout asking for the Keymaker, for reasons that make this movie sound more & more like a video game the longer you get into it. He refused and sent them off, but was betrayed by his wife Persephone (Monica Belluci aka the Platonic Ideal of sexuality) because she’s sick of how much of a dick he is. In a story development that literally not one single audience member thought was a good idea, Persephone exchanged the Keymaker’s whereabouts for a “loving” kiss from Neo, but before all of them could leave the chateau they’re confronted by a furious Merovingian and half a dozen men. In a spacious foyer conveniently decorated with a couple dozen weapons, of course.

Neo volunteers to hold off the bad guys while Trinity & Morpheus run the other way with the Keymaker, a decision I always questioned. Instead of Neo staying behind to fight out a protracted but ultimately easy battle against these Rodeo Drive rejects, why not have Neo fly off with the Keymaker (after all, Neo is their strongest asset and the Keymaker’s help is paramount) while Morpheus and Trinity struggle desperately in a frantic 2-on-6 battle? Don’t know how it would have affected the following freeway sequence, but ah, what might have been.

Speaking of which, you know who gets left out of this battle entirely? These guys:

They arrive with the rest of Merovingian’s gang, but are immediately dispatched to float after the Keymaker. Presumably some sort of ghost programs, the Twins have one of the most fascinating powers out of anybody in the movie: they can “phase” back and forth out of intangibility. Although as a superpower it’s hardly original, it definitely would have been a game-changer for this series’ fight scenes (and was teased as such in the trailers)– a way to give Neo trouble that didn’t involve “slightly stronger enemies” or just “lots of enemies.” Instead the Wachowskis opted to pretty much leave these guys out of fight scenes altogether: they trade a couple blows with Morpheus in the garage and have some shenanigans with a razor blade inside a cramped automobile, but the majority of this pair’s screen time is spent on a car chase, of all things. Hey, we all like a good car chase, but using a power like this in a car chase is like putting Wolverine in your movie and making his primary weapon be a gun. Matrix Reloaded wastes so much potential I can never decide if it does so recklessly or willfully.

Anyway, once Neo’s alone the Merovingian has his goons open fire. Which doesn’t work because, once again, Neo has the ability to telekinetically stop bullets. Not punches, kicks, swords, or anything else– just bullets.

In fairness, he can stop a LOT of bullets.

With that failing, they all try to take him on physically. Which they also fail at, only slower.

The Fight: Whereas the previous setpiece was chaotic, this one’s actually more dynamic, graceful even. While still as (not literally) bloodless as the rest of the film’s punchifying, there’s a certain smoothness to the movement that the Burly Brawl lacks. (A smoothness reflected in Don Davis’ music, of course.)

Neo and everyone else starts out unarmed, but the goons start picking up weapons pretty quickly. Neo holds out as long as he can trying to go on his own (pride?), but taking a nasty a cut on his hand after using it to block a sword (the moment creates a nice little pause in the action) is more than enough inspiration to follow his new friends’ example.

The gang explores the chateau space here in a way that would make Bruce Dickinson proud. Everyone’s constantly dancing around each other, going back & forth between the two floors (sometimes by stairs, sometimes by jumping), getting knocked into things or even hitting each other inadvertently. As always, the camerawork of the Wachowskis and cinematographer Bill Pope is more than dynamic enough to match, with no shortage of stylistic and well-staged shots. Except for the two goons who die early on, nobody gets stuck with one single weapon, as the implements are constantly getting broken, knocked aside, thrown or just plain left in corpses.

It’s not entirely perfect. Cain, the one goon we actually recognize due to his prior scene with Persephone (and who had a larger role in the contemporary, glitch-filled companion video game Enter The Matrix), doesn’t just exit the fight scene early on but does so puzzlingly: Neo knocks him through a stone statue in slow-mo, and after he hits the ground you don’t see him again. The injury doesn’t look fatal, especially considering the punishment Cain’s buddies absorb here and how a few minutes ago we heard Persephone talk about how incredibly hard to kill he is. A later death, caused by a baddie getting stuck with a trident Neo dodged, is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. And one guy gets a sword slice to the back of his neck that doesn’t seem to do more than bother him.

Still, that kind of sloppiness is the exception rather than the norm; the majority of the fight is meticulously staged and filled with a number of small, clever moments.

Neo pinning the weirdly androgynous henchperson to the wall, his fun little pose after summoning two sais from either end of the room (the hero’s single act of non-bullet-stopping telekinesis), the way the hero controls the movement around the space and turns his opponents’ weapons against each other. Probably the best moment is the last, when Neo faces off against the final goon, Eskrima against long club, and uses his sticks to throw the opponent’s weapon into the air. While it’s up there, Neo kicks the guy (girl?) down onto the ground, catches the falling club, and smashes it in his/her face (said smashing is directly preceded by a funny yet muted “oh crap” look).

The final, static shot of Neo standing victorious amongst the mess he made is a nice little beat as well.

In a way, the chateau fight is less ambitious than the Burly Brawl, but in others it’s more so. The environment (multiple floors) is a more interesting one, and the presence of everyone using short-range weapons is a new element for Matrix fight scenes. The unique weapons combined with the six unique characters presents a much different logistical hurdle than did a hundred identically-dressed Hugo Weavings.

As with that previous brawl, the excitement is technical rather than dramatic; at no point do we really sense Neo is in danger (either of getting hurt or of losing); sure, it takes him a while to kill all these guys, but just because it takes me a while to finally hit a fly with a flyswatter doesn’t make us evenly-matched. There are also the aforementioned nagging issues, and of course the wasted potential, but you can only fault a movie so much for what it doesn’t do. This fight genuinely was experimental for the franchise, and escapes the typical sequel-itis problem of “the same thing, only more so.” Effort counts.

Grade: A-

Recommended Links: The entry on this fight (as well as the entry for the last one) over at the Matrix Wiki have been very helpful in reminding me of details even my extensive notes didn’t cover.

Coming Attractions: “Morpheus is fightin’ a boring guy!”

He already lost the battle against the Green Filter, unfortunately

The Matrix Reloaded (fight 4 of 6)

In which we find out that Agent Smith is not just the president of the Agent Smith Fan Club…

… he’s also EVERY member

4) Neo vs Agent Smith(s)

The Fighters:

  • 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.

Screw John Woo and his doves; crows are where it’s at.

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.

“ahm in ur matrix, overwritin ur codes”

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:

Agent: “You!”

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.

Oof.

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…

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Good times with weapons.

The Matrix Reloaded (fight 3 of 6)

Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

“Nice to meet you. I’m in this movie for no reason. You?”

3) Neo vs Seraph

The Fighters:

  • Neo, the prophesied savior and so forth. Played by Keanu Reeves.
  • Seraph, another sentient program within the Matrix. His responsibility is to protect the Oracle, though it’s hinted at that that’s not what he was originally designed for or what he’s always done. One of the few named, non-Agent character who’s not dressed like a goth teenager’s wet dream. Played by Collin Chou, though originally the role was intended for Michelle Yeoh, and later Jet Li.

Nobody’s armed with anything here, it’s all hand-to-hand.

The Setup: Neo’s been looking for the Oracle, who he hasn’t seen since before his embracing his One-ness. Receiving a summons from her, he arrives alone at this small tea shop, finding only Seraph (a class of angel mentioned in the Bible), who appears in his “Matrix vision” as a lot of shining white code. After brief introductions, Seraph offers up a pre-emptive apology for the “fight” (read: brief inconvenience) he’s about to cause.

The Fight: The previous fight was relatively toothless, but that one at least had people getting hit. This one doesn’t even have that much.

Oh, it’s all very well-choreographed. There is all manner of fancy swinging, dodging, countering and elaborate footwork. Early on, Seraph does a neat trick where he gradually circles around Neo as they clash, which eventually forces them to both take the fight upward to the small tables in the room, where it stays for the duration. Unnecessary, but kind of neat how they maintain their balance.

And whatever else, the Wachowski still knew how to film a fight scene at this point. They know when to make their shots close-ups, long, medium, overhead, profile, static, moving, etc., and always with the well-applied spice of slow-motion. Don Davis’ fast-paced Asian drums are fun, a sort of a callback to the cheesy riffs that opened up the first movie’s dojo scene. There’s definite skill on display both with the combatants and the filmmaking.

However, it’s still a big nothing. As complex as it is, it’s over in less than a minute, and the closest thing to a genuine connecting blow is Neo palming Seraph on a chest, and Seraph only uses the momentum to launch himself into a backflip anyway. The skill level of Neo’s angelic opponent is unclear, because even though they fight to a virtual standstill it’s likely that Neo was holding back in order to not hurt someone he thinks is an ally… but then Seraph may have been holding back as well, because he was only fighting hard enough to test Neo.

Yes, “test.” When Seraph cuts the fight short, he explains that the tangle was necessary in order to verify Neo’s identity. When Neo snarks that Seraph could have just asked, he replies with deadpan sincerity “You cannot truly know someone, until you fight them.” Which, uh… lolwhut?

This fight’s existence makes no sense. The Oracle has this super kung fu guy as her 24-7 protection who insists upon engaging in sophisticated authentication procedures (to sniff out shape-shifters?), even though she can literally see the future? And where was this guy in the first movie? I distinctly remember that the Oracle used to have an apartment that pretty much anyone was able to walk in & out of. Did all those weird bald kids have to get their asses kicked by Seraph before they were allowed to come in and bend spoons in the living room? Maybe this is a new security procedure on account of Agent Smith’s recent antics, but his powers distinctly do not include impersonating other people, so….

Doesn’t make much point from a pacing standpoint, either. It has indeed been a long time since this movie flexed its action muscles, and audiences were itching for a fight after being forced to sit through an interminable scenes of a slow-motion cave rave, Keanu’s buttcrack, and meandering discussions with Anthony Zerbe about “choice.” But the audience is due for one doozy of a fight– arguably its centerpiece– less than ten minutes after this one ends, so….

I just don’t understand the Wachowskis. Does that mean I have to fight them?

Grade: C

Coming Attractions: Let’s get Burly.

Like this, but more realistic. Mostly.

The Matrix Reloaded (fight 2 of 6)

“Brooks Brothers Team… ATTACK!”

2) Neo vs Agents

The Fighters:

  • 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!”

Anyway.

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.

How bored does the guy on the far left look?

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.

Grade: C+

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.

Don’t act all confused. You know what you did.

The Matrix Reloaded (fight 1 of 6)

Whoa 2.0.

This movie was released just a little over ten years ago, to the delight of some, the disappointment of others, and the confusion of many. I won’t get too deep into my feelings on the film overall, at least not at first, because I still don’t quite know what to think about it. It presents a lot of ideas that are really fascinating or just plain neat, such as the way physical keys act as a way to access “back doors” within the computer world. It’s so stylistically overblown and needlessly convoluted that at times I half-suspect it’s deliberately satirizing itself/messing with its audience*. Similarly, depending on my mood I can’t tell if all the sequels’ endless philosophical blather is the filmmakers going over my head or or up their own butts, though I usually lean towards the latter. Still, the attempt is… admirable.

[*I more than half-suspect the third movie does so. When the Merovingian ominously tells the heroes early on that he’ll help them only if they provide him with “the eyes of the Oracle,” Trinity snaps and declares “we don’t have TIME for stupid fetch-quest crap like in the last movie!” in almost as many words.]

Whatever The Matrix Reloaded is, it is quite definitely, for good and for ill, not The Matrix. The film’s fight scenes, though largely technically well-done and reasonably entertaining, provide one very interesting metric in this regard. Let’s get to it.

1) Trinity vs Unfortunate Security Guards

The Fighters:

  • Trinity, master kung fu hacker and girlfriend of the digital messiah. Played by Carrie-Ann Moss.
    • Armed with: I do believe she’s packing some serious guns, but here she sticks with using her motorcycle helmet to devastating effect. Come to think of it, the motorcycle itself gets rather weaponized, too.
  • Security guards, five of them. A bunch of meatheads in the wrong place on the wrong shift. Played by stunt men.
    • Armed with: Batons.

The Setup: This fight and Trinity’s bad encounter with an Agent that follows are revealed to be part of a prophetic dream that Neo’s having, the meaning of which won’t be clear until later. But even though we don’t know the context, it’s clear enough that Trinity is storming whatever building this chumps are guarding, just as the opening action scene in the first movie made it clear that she was cornered and running from dangerous forces.

The Fight: Trinity makes a strong opening move by literally dropping in on her motorcycle from atop a neighboring building. The bike itself crashes and makes quite a fireball out of the guard shack, but of course not before our ninja gal had time to jump off and land in a self-consciously Super Cool pose in front of the explosion:

Filmed in super slow-motion, just in case you somehow missed how COOL it was.

The surviving guards come at Trinity in a rush, but she makes short work of them, using a combination of her limbs and her headgear. She does pull off a few neat moves, the first being a slow motion high flip (during which she kicks a guy while upside down), and the second being the “scorpion kick” (so called because she leans her torso so far forward her kicking loops around the back way like a scorpion’s tail) she uses as her finisher.

Curiously, she only seems to hit each guy about once or twice each, and once they go down they stay down. Paying close attention to the fight you’re actually surprised to see how quickly it’s over, and in more of a “wait, she already beat them all?” sense than a “wow, look how quick she beat them!” one. The impacts aren’t sold like they should be. This will be a recurring theme for this film.

Speaking of recurrence, this sequence is, as alluded to above, quite clearly intended to invite comparison to the first Matrix. They both open with a brief but attention-grabbing action sequence starring Trinity in a mysterious situation, though as noted here her role is offensive rather than defensive. Here, though, it just doesn’t carry the same weight; no one seeing this movie is a stranger to this world and we’ve seen what people like Trinity can do.

Still, it’s not bad as whistle-whetters go. The pace will pick up from here, but looking back it’s easy to see the writing on the wall for how things are going to be different.

Grade: B-

Recommended Links: To be fair, here’s a thoughtful piece defending what’s good about the Matrix sequels.

Coming Attractions: Neo knows even MORE kung fu!

And a new tailor!