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?

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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.