A neo-noir science fiction action film written and directed by The Wachowskis, starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano. The film drew influences from Japanese Manga animation, “cyberpunk” stories, Hong Kong action cinema and even Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”.
Keanu Reeves stars as “Thomas A. Anderson /Neo”, a computer programmer who moonlights as a hacker, that may or may not be a prophesised saviour of an enslaved human race. Prior to “The Matrix”, Reeves had played in a variety of popular movie roles, and had seen some success in the action genre with “Point Break” in 1991 and “Speed” in 1994.
The respected and award-winning actor Laurence Fishburne brings a gravitas to the role of “Morpheus”, the captain of a crew of rebels who is willing to stake his life that Neo is “The One”, prophesised to bring down the Matrix. Canadian actress Carrie-Anne Moss’s breakthrough role was as “Trinity”, a trusted member of Morpheus’s crew who has a vested interest in Neo.
Prior to playing the sinister “Agent Smith”, Australian actor Hugo Weaving was probably best known to international audiences for his role in “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert”.
Thomas Anderson is a computer programmer living a double life under the hacker alias “Neo”. He senses something is wrong with the world and is puzzled by repeated online encounters with the cryptic phrase “the Matrix”. Another notorious hacker called Trinity contacts Neo, saying that a man named Morpheus can explain its meaning. Having been pursued by “government agents” led by the sinister Agent Smith, Neo meets with Morpheus and is given a choice to remain in his mundane working life or discover what the Matrix really is.
Neo is “unplugged” and rescued by Morpheus and his crew and told the truth of his existence. The Matrix is a shared simulation of the world as it was in 1999 in which the minds of harvested humans are trapped and pacified. Morpheus believes that Neo is “The One”, a man prophesised to bring down the Matrix and free the human race. With training from Morpheus, Neo soon discovers that the physics of the Matrix world can be manipulated giving him enhanced skills. Neo must return to the world of the Matrix and face the deadly Agents in a test that will truly prove if Morpheus’s faith in Neo and the prophecy are deserved.
The opening scenes of the movie are centrally lit with dark edges, making each frame look like it came directly from a graphic novel. When the police try to handcuff Trinity, the action is presented in a way that the audience had never really witnessed before, outside of a Manga animation. In slow motion, Trinity leaps into the air, the frame freezes as the camera spins around her and then bursts back into life as she fires off her kick and runs up a wall! Chased across the rooftops, she leaps seemingly impossible distances from building to building, before crashing through a window, rolling down a staircase and drawing two pistols Chow Yun Fat style.
As the story moves forward and Neo discovers what the Matrix is, we get to see exactly why the Wachowskis employed the services of legendary martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. Neo has the ability to “upload” new skills, including “combat training”. Proclaiming to Morpheus that “I know kung fu”, they enter a simulated dojo. The set looks like it came straight from Jet Li‘s “Fist of Legend“, the film that convinced the Wachowskis to bring Yuen Woo-ping on board at all costs.
For fans of that film and so many others like “Iron Monkey” or “Once Upon a Time in China“, there aren’t that many techniques and postures in this scene that they wouldn’t have witnessed before. But what sets this fight apart is that Hollywood actors Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne are rarely doubled, with Reeves in particular performing some impressive moves. As a result, the audience can buy into the wire fu due to the hyperreal physics of the Matrix. I know that many film fans in the West can find the wirework in some Chinese martial arts movies to be a bit silly. But in this world, it fits perfectly. Coupled with some great camerawork, editing and a pumping soundtrack, it’s one of the most entertaining martial arts fights to have appeared in a major Hollywood feature film.
When our heroes are trapped in an old building, Morpheus takes on the deadly Agent Smith mano a mano to ensure Neo can escape. For a man of Fishburne’s dimensions he moves well. Hugo Weaving as Smith fights efficiently, conveying an almost effortless strength in his fist and elbow strikes, as you would expect from the drone-like agents.
The infamous lobby assault takes the slow motion ballet of a classic John Woo-directed shootout and turbo charges it. Trinity and Neo cartwheel and somersault off the walls and pillars taking out an army of guards with a multitude of firearms. Never has so much destruction and mayhem looked so stylish. When they reach the rooftop Neo performs the now much imitated and spoofed “bullet dodge”. This was a revolutionary filming technique at the time and still looks cool now. When Neo opens fire with a mini gun, the bullets slice through the sprinkler water in slow motion, much like a sword would in a film like “Once Upon a Time in China”.
The apparently invincible Agent Smith chases Neo down into a Subway station. There are some classic moves here including the jumping multiple kick that has featured in many a wuxia film. The dusty station also gives our fighters plenty of “power powder”, another staple of Asian fight choreography, to emphasise the impact of each strike. The whirling 360° bullet time camera work is used to great effect as Neo and Smith grapple in the air firing their guns at each other.
When Neo finally comes to believe he is “The One”, the student becomes the master. Reeves does well with his one-handed blocking technique and kicks to the best of his flexibility, which was restricted due to a spinal injury at the time.
Yuen Woo-ping has a talent for bringing out the best in any actor he is given. Playing to each actor’s strengths, this perhaps has never been more true than with the four main stars of “The Matrix”.
The impact of this film and its utilisation of Yuen Woo-ping’s action choreography should not be underestimated. It’s easy to forget after all the imitators it has had over the best part of two decades, how ground-breaking this film was when it hit cinemas in early 1999. It opened the doors for Chinese films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“, “Hero“, “House of Flying Daggers” and “Fearless” to have wide releases outside of Asia. It also influenced the way Hollywood filmmakers presented action in movies, from the “Charlie’s Angels” and “Mission: Impossible” films, through to “Equilibrium”, “Underworld”, “Spider-man”, “X-Men” and “Watchmen”. Even in some of today’s Marvel films, much of the action is derivative of “The Matrix”. How many times have you seen a DVD featuring Yuen Woo-ping’s work that says on the cover “from the acclaimed action director of The Matrix”? It even says it on this year’s release of “Ip Man 3“, as if having Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson in a film wasn’t appealing enough!
Yuen Woo-ping was initially reluctant to be involved with Hollywood movies or “The Matrix”, but was convinced when it was agreed that he could prepare the actors before filming began. The four leads trained nearly every day from October 1997 to March 1998 in martial arts, fight choreography and wirework. This allowed them to perform much of the action on camera themselves even though none of them were natural martial artists.
In many ways, the world of “The Matrix” was the perfect concept for wire fu that Chinese film makers hadn’t thought of, and the perfect crossover for mainstream Western audiences to appreciate wuxia-style heroic fantasy action. The only other films I can think of that had tried to bring this style of action to the West before “The Matrix” were “Drive” starring Mark Dacascos and “Blade” starring Wesley Snipes, both released in 1998. “Blade” in particular has a very similar scene of Wesley Snipes diving through a window to a building across the street and even its own version of the “bullet-time” scene.
With the heroes dressed in their cool neo-Gothic outfits and sunglasses, it’s all set to a pulsating soundtrack that appealed to ravers, gamers and cyberpunks. “Music for the Jilted Generation” as featured band The Prodigy would probably call it.
“The Matrix” set the bar so high that the two sequels brought in martial arts action specialists Collin Chou (Flash Point), Tiger Chen (Man of Tai Chi) and Daniel Bernhardt (John Wick) as fresh characters for Neo to fight. Despite some good moments with these new additions, the increased use of CGI reduced many of the action scenes to looking like something out of a Playstation game, and the follow ups never really hit the heights of their progenitor.
As a pure martial arts film it probably deserves a score of seven out of ten, because many existing fans of Hong Kong cinema would suffer regular feelings of déjà vu for many of the fight scenes, albeit they had never been quite filmed and edited like this before. Judged for its innovation, impact, legacy and sheer entertainment, “The Matrix” is a classic, and easily takes a score of nine.
- Other actors considered for the role of Neo were Will Smith, Nicholas Cage and Johnny Depp. Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson and Chow Yun-fat were considered for the part of Morpheus, and Jean Reno turned down the role of Agent Smith. Singer Janet Jackson was unable to accept the role of Trinity due to scheduling conflicts.
- Some of the martial arts styles shown uploaded to Neo include Ju Jitsu, Savate, Kempo, Taekwondo, and Drunken Boxing. Yuen Woo-Ping was director and fight choreographer for Jackie Chan‘s early hit, “Drunken Master“.
- Keanu Reeves suffered a two-level fusion of his cervical spine which had begun to cause paralysis in his legs, requiring him to undergo surgery. He was still recovering by the time of pre-production, but he insisted on training, so Yuen Woo-Ping let him practice punches and lighter moves. Reeves trained hard and even requested training on days off. However, the surgery still meant he was unable to kick for two out of four months of training. As a result, Reeves did not kick much in the film.
- Filming the scene when Neo slammed Smith into the ceiling, Chad Stahelski, Keanu Reeves’ stunt double, sustained several injuries, including broken ribs, knees, and a dislocated shoulder. Stahelski would go on to direct Reeves in “John Wick”.
- Chinese Stuntman Tiger Chen, who helped Keanu Reeves with his martial arts training for “The Matrix”, would go on to appear in the sequel “The Matrix: Reloaded”, and be the star of Keanu Reeves directorial debut, “Man of Tai Chi“.
- “The Matrix” received four Academy Awards for film editing, sound effects editing, visual effects, and sound. The filmmakers were competing against other films with established franchises, like “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”, yet they won all four of their nominations.