*Last Updated: 7/15/2022
The first R-rated film I saw in movie theaters was The Matrix in 1999. I was 16 years old, on my own for the afternoon, so I bought a ticket for another PG-13 movie and walked into a different theater to see this little science fiction film I had seen an ad for that seemed like it might be cool. I really enjoyed it, but like the rest of the country, my appreciation and enjoyment for it grew even more over time. It was one of the early must have DVD's when that lovely machine first came out. I remember getting excited to go over my friends house and listen to the lobby shootout sequence in the first movie on their new surround system with DVD quality sound! The Matrix and its three sequels were written and directed by Lana and Lily Wachowski and it tells a fantastic sci/fi story (well the first two do anyways) that we could talk a lot about, but there's already plenty of articles examining the story so I'll leave that for another time so I can focus on its action.
It's hard to imagine this now, but the meta of the American action scene in 1999 generally rejected the Hong Kong style. If any film had a story that could help smuggle Hong Kong style into American hearts, it's this one; a story about people being in a computer reality that if you were made conscious enough of it, you could bend the rules you were previously bound by ("you think that's air you're breathing now?"). All of a sudden, the artistic and over the top gunplay of John Woo and the intricate and gravity defying wire-fu made made perfect logical sense for a big budget film to employ. Still, concepts are one thing, execution is another. The Wachowski's wisely brought over Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo-Ping (of Drunken Master, Iron Monkey, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) and his team to help them do it. The Wachowski's didn't just steal from Hong Kong though, they also called upon visual effects wizards to push boundaries in new ways, and fused it all together in their own unique vision.
The success of The Matrix spawned an entire wave of imitators (some good and some bad) and paved the way for Hong Kong style action to be accepted, if not sought out, in American action films. By my count, the franchise has given us 23 action sequences. Before we get into my ratings, rankings, and commentaries for each (where the meat of my analysis will come), let me share with you my basic takes on the movies themselves:
- The Matrix (A-) 1999: A ground breaking and icon science fiction/action film. The universal message "we are living as slaves, wake up and fight our oppressor's" perfectly finds a home at the turn of the twentieth century as our technological advances gave us the internet and virtual reality. It's stylish, filled with great performances and action sequences, but it also has flaws. I think we give the Neo/Trinity love story too much of a pass - those two just don't have chemistry. I also feel like "The One" storyline of Neo being some prophesied figure never made much sense in this film. It made logical sense in the world of the film (and given even deeper grounding in the sequel), I mean it just never felt like the film needed this. The "red pill/blue pill" make a choice to take your life back bit is the backbone of the film and "The One" stuff always felt like convoluted distraction. Still, The Matrix earns its hype, is incredibly re-watchable, and is complete enough that it doesn't truly need any successors.
- The Matrix Reloaded (B+) 2003: I was in college when this film dropped and there are maybe only a handful of films I have been more hyped to see in my life. The film did tremendous box office (despite being R rated) and had its fans, but the response was fairly negative - that it was odd and didn't make sense. It's always difficult to separate hype and expectations from what we actual get in the film. After many views and many years I think this is an extremely mixed film. On one hand, it has severe problems weighing it down. The slick, focused, and unified screenplay of the first film has made way to a bloated, poorly paced, and tough to follow film. However, as an ambitious action film expanding the universe with many new characters and a sequel that seeks to challenge the status quo of the first film - it absolutely shines. I personally have grown to love the architect scene and its franchise altering cynical implications, but I get it - its tough to follow (especially on one viewing) and strains the story right at the end of an exhausting movie. Add that ridiculous "love" savior stuff of Trinity at the end and you get the great/horrible nature of this film. It's generally better than the Star Wars prequels, but the effect is similar - the parts are greater than the whole. I love watching large sequences, but don't find myself watching the movie as a whole.
- The Matrix Revolutions (C) 2003: The third film in the franchise, filmed back to back with the second film, has a surprisingly different feel than the previous. Where Reloaded was fast moving and ambitious action film with moments expanding and upending story, Revolutions plays out more like a plodding sci-fi war film. It begins with the consequences of the last film, Morpheus' dreams shattered while Neo is in some kind of limbo ruled by the Train Man...something that I still don't quite fully understand to be honest. The attempts of Seraph, Trinity, and Morpheus to retrieve Neo take up the first major section of the film and are filled with exposition and one moment of action that feels desperate and exhausted. It's not great because its the only action scene until the end set pieces. The middle portion of the story just sink the film. They are scattered, not all that compelling, and throw tons of exposition at us through Agent Smith, Oracles, Generals, you name it. Rather than a narrative straight-line heading toward the conclusion, it feels like the writers desperately trying to get everything in order before the action endings begin. The Battle for Zion and Neo's final showdown with the machines are workman like and they certainly try hard, but the story has become so complicated bloated that it's kind of exhausting. I think the "uneasy peace" conclusion given to us makes basic sense for how the story played out, but feels like an unsatisfying conclusion given the almost endless directions they could have gone.
- The Matrix Resurrections (C-) 2021: The fourth film in the franchise is the longest at nearly 2.5 hours (!!) and came to us eighteen years after The Matrix Revolutions. Gonna try and get the story right, but honestly it's a bit tough to follow it all perfectly. Neo and Trinity were reconstructed (their actual bodies) by the machines and re-plugged back into the Matrix with wiped minds and new backstories. Neo is given a life where he creates a game called "The Matrix" that are essentially the stories from the original trilogy. We also get some new characters, old characters returning with new actors, and a new(ish) villain as well. The whole thing plays out like the reverse of another major 2021 film ,The Rise of the Skywalker, in that film we see an attempt to undo the major changes brought by the previous franchise entry's (The Last Jedi) perceived unsatisfying development and resolution. In the case of Matrix Resurrections, the status quo (perceived as unsatisfying I guess) leftover from Matrix Revolutions where there is an uneasy truce between man and machine due to Neo's sacrifice gets altered, this story put in its place, and Neo & Trinity get a happily ever after ending. Unfortunately, the changes works in neither film. I have heard in interviews that Lana Wachowski knew Warner Bros were going to do a fourth film with or without her, so she decided why not give her baby a happy ending. Who knows what happened behind the scenes, but this entry has some interesting ideas/concepts, but by the time the whole plot is revealed - it all feels so cheap and revisionist. That the action in the film is entirely subpar and uninterested in living up to its legacy is the last bit of dirt burying this film and making it the worst of the franchise.
All John Wick Sequences Rated and Ranked
Mediocre sequences that have some flaw or issue I find somewhat insulting or offensive.
- Commentary: There's a ton of interlocking things happening at this conclusion and I think I get it, but there's no way I'm gonna try and describe. Essentially, the Neo Crew and Trinity need to escape every human infected and swarming against them. It kinda begins with a joke about Neo flying away and he can't, but the film never really explains why he can't. Anyways, the group gets in a vehicle and Neo/Trinity get on a motorcycle to try and escape the swarm- think everyone being zombified and willing to throw away their life to kill the heroes. The swarm causes accidents and go crazily after our crew. Neo's entire response is to wave his hands and do those power wave things to keep people away. In one shot, people are literally throwing themselves out of skyscrapers to stop Trinity and Neo - bodies slamming the ground all over. Despite his wavy power hands (again the only thing he does), Neo just leaves behind the new crew, not caring what happens to them. I don't get that part of. Bugs literally has to jack in and risk her life to help them and she doesn't have power wavy hands. Everything is filmed at night, hard to see...can you tell that this MATRIX ACTION FINALE annoys me? It's so devoid of creativity and basic in conception that one of its big highlight moments before its over is Neo stopping a bunch of bullets...in film four! Neo heads up to the roof where a helicopter fires a machine gun and rockets at them and guess what he does to Trinity and himself? That's right - wavy power hands. Neo and Trinity not willing to go back to their slave lives essentially commit suicide or something akin to it, but Trinity realizes she can fly - because of course she can. Ugh - what a disappointing and underwhelming finale.
Mediocre sequences that lack anything that makes them stand out. Decent, but forgettable.
22. "Morpheus' Failed Bathroom Recruitment Leads to a Shootout" -The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
- Commentary: New Morpheus tries to recruit computer programmer Thomas Anderson (but not Thomas Anderson) to join him out of the Matrix, but he doesn't go for it thinking he's out of his mind. He stalls long enough that officers show up and we get a short shootout. Its a real nothing as an action scene, meant to be limited, but still a flat and boring entry into the franchise. SIDE NOTE: You could tell how little impact Matrix Resurrections made as an action film by the sheer lack of gifs people have posted to the web - almost impossible to find ones not of one or two moments.
21. "Stowaway Fight: Neo vs. Bane" -The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
- Commentary: This sequence epitomizes the dreary and unfocused middle portion of The Matrix Resurrections. Agent Smith has somehow was able to enter the consciousness of Bane and be outside of the Matrix on the rebel ships. Neo and Trinity take one of the ships to head to the machine city but Bane jumps on board and there is an eventual confrontation between them. It's mostly heavy on exposition and there really is just a bare bones scuffle here, but the key is that Neo is blinded - forcing him to trust only his "matrix vision" I guess. The entire sequence just feels like an unnecessary annoyance and present only to tie up loose ends and fulfill some of the complications of how convoluted the different character motivations (especially Agent Smith) have become at this point.
20. "Opening: Bugs Snags Agent Morpheus" -The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
- Commentary: The opening of the fourth film sees a new character named Bugs, watching a version of the original film's opening. It turns out to be a trap by the agents in the Matrix. It isn't long until she finds herself running away from agents, jumping down from a building, and over cars then being taken by an agent who is questioning his purpose and role. Bugs and him talk about what they are feeling (a huge exposition dump) and the agent is revealed to become Morpheus. They enter the mainframe, choose a wrong door, and are chased by more agents. They run into a building and dive out a window into a pane (or something like this) as their exit out of the modal/matrix. To be honest, all the new information comes at the viewer pretty quick and is complicated stuff (modals, re-doing the original opening, new characters, Morpheus as an agent, exiting out of new ways, etc.) We've come a long way from the simple and focused opening of the first one! Read my commentary on that to see how much better the writing was. This is a bit of a mess, I've seen it multiple times and still not super clear.
19. "Neo & Trinity Fly Into Machine City" -The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
- Commentary: After the EMP is switched on and we get a lull in the Battle of Zion, our attention switches to Zion's only help left - that Trinity and Neo are successful in their trip to Machine City. Having dealt with the nuisance of Bane, Neo and Trinity arrive at the city which throws thousands of sentinels at them as a defense. Neo holds out his hand and begins destroying, but can't get all of them so they head above the clouds for a moment. There's a nice moment here where they both enjoy the beauty of the real sun. They eventually come back down and crash into the core of the machine city. Unfortunately, Trinity is impaled multiple times (it's revealed in a shot that will never not make me laugh because it is so gruesome and so tonally different from the soft and dramatic death scene they want) and won't survive the film. I guess this is a necessary short action scene to give Neo some kind of obstacle along his way, but it's not as interesting or exciting as the standard we are use to, which kind of makes it feel superfluous.
- Commentary: How far the mighty have fallen! There was a time when this shootout and chase set piece would have been a prestige moment pushing action boundaries, instead it's just a mediocre train shootout that looks like it was rushed on set and rushed in the effects room. Neo has decided to take the red pill and leave the matrix again. As he's going through his tripping experience agents attack the room and the group is forced to flee through a mirror onto a train, but they are followed and agents take over the bodies on the train to swarm them. Great setup, but everything is short in so tight and close that it all feels like it's made for a television show. One or two welcome visual treats here (I liked when someone was thrown out the window), but this is something done in a million movies and daily on television now.
- Commentary: Even though Neo has, for a second time gotten out of the matrix, he still needs to have that superhero part of him unlocked again. This film thought it would be wise to revisit the Morpheus vs Neo dojo sequence to unlock it again. Bad move. It's bad because every fan is going to compare the two sequences and it is obvious from the very beginning that this one doesn't even come close to the quality of the original. It feels like a knock-off brand version of it. There's one or two nice fight beats here (it's a somewhat short scene) as Morpheus goads Neo into kicking into that higher gear. Once Morpheus brings up Trinity then Neo unleashes this power wave and its all over. That power wave feels like a lazy shortcut to not make something more memorable, you'll see it plague the finale sequence as well.
Largely mediocre sequences that have some redeeming or standout feature. This, to me, is where the average decent action sequence ranks.
16. "Opening Dream: Trinity Infiltrates & Challenges Agents" -The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
- Commentary: After a four year hiatus, The Matrix franchise came back to the big screen with The Matrix Reloaded. Like the original film, this one begins with an action sequence surrounding Trinity. She does an incredible stunt where she essentially rides her motorcycle off a high point, flips off of it, the motorcycle lands causing a giant explosion, and she lands with style silhouetted by the explosion. She has a slick little fight afterwards reminding us all just how cool a character she. This little bit is an exciting morsel for the action fans who waited four years to get more of what they oved in the original. The next sequence is a bit of a carpet puller though, as we segway to Trinity jumping out of a skyscraper, agent behind her, as they are in a slow motion gun battle that sees Trinity die. Neo of course wakes up and its all a dream. It's a decent way to open the new film and begin sowing one of the main conflicts, Neo feeling impending doom- but this opening action segment can't come close to touching the originals efficiency in introducing the world and main conflict there. Already you can tell the quality might become an issue.
15. "Dominatrix Club Shootout & Fight" -The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
- Commentary: Seraph, Neo, and Trinity need to see the Merovingian at his club so they can make a deal and get Neo out of limbo. They take out security at the door and enter into a kind of coat check/lounge area where they get into a shootout. The security inside the coat check area (dressed in varying S&M outfits) turn upside down and get on the ceiling. It's a cool visual, but the scene never really sells why they do it as it doesn't seem to give them any advantage. The resulting shootout and fight is okay but it all feels a bit redundant, derivative, and desperate. There's another standoff moment a bit later in the club but its too little too late. It's too bad because this is really the only action sequence until the major set pieces at the end of the film.
14. "Neo vs. Upgraded Agents" -The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
- Commentary: A meeting between different factions of the resistance movement is interrupted by the arrival of agents. Neo encourages everyone to leave and he goes out to challenge the agents. This is an important fight because it comes at the beginning of the first sequel and the last time we saw him he was literally diving inside of agents to destroy them from within and then flying around. Is he going to be doing that in the new film? Neo's fight with agents is essentially a straight forward kung fu fight, but it tells a little story. The first beat he has with an agent Neo is kind handling it with one hand and he responds, "Hmm, upgrades" telling us that even getting to a point where he has to give effort means the agents have changed. That's how the franchise got around the whole "he can dive into agents now" problem - upgrades. Okay - I guess that works because you have to make it work. The actual fight looks good, reminds us Neo is good at kung fu, and is a nice little nibble of bigger action to come.
13. "Finale: Breaking Into the Source Code" -The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
- Commentary: Due to the way The Matrix Reloaded has been structured, the chateau fight and highway chase are the true action climax of the film and the true dramatic ending of the film is going to be the polarizing architect scene. This leaves this unlucky action sequence to go on after an all-time set piece and before a polarizing moment - in other words it has a tough job. The sequence brings us back to the opening moment with Trinity breaking into a facility with her motorcycle explosion and agent fight, but it adds this "mainframe hallway of doors" setting where Agent Smith makes a surprise re-appearance and we get a kind of looney tunes esque sequence with dozens of Smiths fighting in the hallways and characters appearing and re-appearing through multiple doorways. We get a brief but decent back and forth with our good guys and the Smiths and some unique visuals, but the scene is meant to be limited, just a bridge to the architect sequence.
Good sequences that have some issue holding it back from being solid.
12. "Warehouse Battle: Neo vs. Agent Smith...Again" -The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
- Commentary: Neo and the new crew (the Neo Crew if you will) head into the Matrix to find Trinity. On their way they run into Agent Smith who has brought the old Merovingian and other exile programs (now dressed like the lost boys from 1991's Hook?) and a fight ensures. The group fight is pretty mediocre stuff, but the Neo vs. Smith fight at least has a pulse. They try to reignite something here, but it just feels a bit desperate. Again, we've seen Neo fly and dodge bullets, it's hard to get excited about a few kind of power orbs he makes when he is angry.
Good action sequences with much to commend about them. They are a solid entry into their genre.
- Commentary: The Oracle has a new bodyguard and his name is Seraph, played by skilled martial arts star Colin Chou. In order for Neo to meet with the Oracle in the sequel he has to prove he is the One through a fight with Seraph. The fight we get is fairly brief, but it's a beautiful traditional kung fu exchange that sees them fighting in this traditional Japanese (?) style dining room, stepping up on the tables, knocking over the chopstick holders while the Japanese drums from Neo and Morpheus' dojo fight returns to the score. I've seen several hundred fight scenes and there's just something about the simplicity, the setting, and the choreography that is quite beautiful to me. I love this little hit of action adrenaline...even if it's not really that well integrated into the greater story like all the scenes from the original.
10. "Superbrawl Finale: Neo vs. Agent Smith" -The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
- Commentary: This massive final showdown (until the the fourth film anyways) between Neo and Agent Smith is certainly epic. Neo's job is to somehow defeat Agent Smith who now has a seeming infinite amount of himself. The setting is downtown in the rain on a street lined by Smiths. The two run at each other and begin punching and kicking (a moment that is kind of funny for beings who can do the things we later see them do). Eventually they each land a punch that sends the other flying and then they kind of superman fly into each other and tussle into the skies - sending shockwaves into the rain filled sky. I think my favorite moment in the fight is when Neo and Smith are in this large empty room with large windows showing the rain and lightning outside. Their fight is largely silhouetted and just has a nice style to it. That's the key here - this fight isn't really about superior moves, complicated choreography, or Neo leveling up to a new gear. The fight is about giving a stylish sendoff to their feud (from a viewers standpoint) because by the end Neo is supposed to lose to Smith (sacrificing himself) but in doing so defeating him - I guess because Neo was connected to the main machine city? Anyways, in just three films we've seen these two fight multiple times and the bloom is a bit off the rose here. Additionally, there's always a little bit of, "So I think he's doing this because x, but I'm not sure" uncertainty that lingers behind how complicated this film has become by now. Stylish moments here, nice visuals, but a sequence that is ultimately flat and biding time for the dramatic conclusion they want.
9. "Opening: Trinity Escapes Capture by Agents" -The Matrix (1999)
- Commentary: This is the very first action sequence in the Matrix franchise and it's one of those amazing introductory action sequences that is so well designed and assured of itself that it give you confidence you are about to watch something great. This short action sequence introduces us to Agent Smith and the dangers they present as well as the unique style of action we are in for with Trinity's gravity defying bullet time destruction of the police. The bullet time sequence on the roof with Neo is easily the most remembered, but our first introduction to it was this first sequence when Trinity does her pause in midair jumping front kick and then we get a taste of the wirework when she briefly runs on the wall. She is chased out of the apartment by some agents and to the roof where both Trinity and the agents leap over huge gaps in the buildings. Trinity exits the scene by grabbing a ringing telephone booth phone just before it is smashed by Agent smith a dump truck. The atmosphere, the stylish dress and lighting, the agents, the bending rules of the universe - this short sequence introduces us to the universe and intrigues to know more. On top of that, the action is decent too! This one should be studied by scriptwriters.
8. "Escaping the Altered Building: Morpheus vs. Agent Smith" -The Matrix (1999)
- Commentary: Morpheus brings the crew into the Matrix so that he can take Neo to see the Oracle. After their meeting the crew are walking in a building and Neo has deja vu, he sees a cat walk by twice. In the matrix, deja vu means the computers have altered something in the code - in this case the group has been setup by Cypher and the computers changed the building to close off the exits. Agents and officers are in the building hunting and the crew decide to try and crawl down between the walls to a basement exit. They pause when an officer enters a bathroom and hears them in the walls. Agent Smith reaches through the wall, grabs Neo, but Morpheus busts through the wall and starts a fight with Neo to buy the others time to get away. It's a brief but pretty brutal fight between the two, but Morpheus loses and is taken captive. This is a pretty important fight because it does something to our minds naturally - because we saw Morpheus give Neo a tough time we can kind of gauge how Neo might do with Agent Smith. The fact that Smith kicks Morpheus's but despite his best efforts subconsciously signals to us that the only way for Neo to win is to engage that higher level they hinted at earlier. The rest of the group does get down to the basement where a firefight opens up. Cypher splits (Joey Pants plays this role perfectly), gets out early, and then betrays the group back on their ship outside the matrix, killing the group off one by one. Tank, not quite dead, takes Cypher out and saves the day. A pretty darn solid action sequence well integrated into the story, taking out several characters, and shifting us into the third act.
7. "Battle of Zion" -The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
- Commentary: It's a little over halfway into the third film when the machine sentinels finally bore through the protective dome ceiling of Zion and we "knuckle up" into a battle. The battleground if primarily a incredibly large open space dock (covered by the aforementioned dome) with defensive gun turrets placed in the center and lots of different marines in mech suits (called Armored Personell Units) that fire machine guns from each arm. The action in this dock with the APU's is the primary stand of the battle and provide most of the amazing visuals. The APU's are a cool design and the effects work here is pretty darn spectacular. There's a couple of really nice fantasy/sci war beats here. A smaller strands follow some of the infantry maneuvering around with rockets to take out a giant digger machine and other small targets. The final strand of the battle involves a ship called "The Hammer" carrying Link, Morpheus, and Niobe outrunning some sentinels and needing entry through a gate. If they make it into the dock, they can blow their EMP and take out the large swarms of sentinels there. There's a pretty cheesy moment here with a teen (only given a line or two in the second film) powers up a suit from a fallen marine and takes out the counterweight opening the gate. It's his "Neo, I believe" line that gets the groans. The ship makes it in and they set off their EMP killing all the drones and ending the main part of the Battle of Zion - though they will be under threat until the end of the film. The battle is about a twenty minute sequence that is pretty engaging overall with incredible effects. However, its undercut by the fact that most of the main stars are not involved in the battle, there's some cheesy moments, the general leading it is written as a jerk, and Zion isn't exactly a beloved homeland by the fans - we've barely spent any time here that wasn't a cave rave. Finally, there's just something about the logic of the sentinels that strikes me as off here and unengaging here. They infiltrate the dock and there are tens of thousands maybe more just swarming and they are doing loops around the dock getting fired at. It strikes me that if they just wanted to overwhelm anyone and anything they could do it (at times they do). Them just swarming around while the turrets and APU's fire away makes for cool visuals but a somewhat tame dynamic in the end.
Very good action sequences with something holding them back from greatness. They are typically best in their film and represent something above and beyond expectations.
6. "Burly Brawl: Neo vs. Lots of Agent Smiths" -The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
- Commentary: I love action scenes and I love the anticipation of watching an action sequence where I know the directors and stars are trying to make something that will top everything that's come before it. The idea of Neo fighting Agent Smith again but with better and longer kung fu scenes interested me, but when I heard he would be fighting hundreds of clones Smiths, I was really excited. The end result if the perfect embodiment of The Matrix Reloaded as a movie: hugely ambitious, a bit strained in the setup, delivers on a lot of the goods, but stretches farther than its able to grasp making the whole thing feel tough to unreservedly enjoy. After speaking with the Oracle, Neo is confronted by Agent Smith in an apartment complex courtyard (giving lots of exposition just after the Oracle gave a bunch of exposition). Soon other Agent Smiths arrive and Neo recognizes the danger just as Smith puts his hand in Neo's chest to make him another clone. Neo resists and the sequence kicks off. When the fight is just normal kung fu moves enhanced by some wire work, it is gangbusters. The obvious inspiration or homage here is to Jet Li's Fist of Legend dojo clearing sequence (which is already an re-make of Bruce Lee's dojo clearing sequence in Fist of Fury.); several beats are transported from there to here. That's not surprising of course since Yuen Woo Ping is the same action choreographer for both! I love so many of the one vs many multi-man choreography beats here, just love them; its slick, intricate, complicated, and yet believable. The score is perfect giving the scene an epic feel, but a beat as well. Keanu, Hugo, and the entire stunt team clearly gave it their all here. This is why it is so frustrating when the sequence tries to take it up another notch and incorporate some choreography sequences that are admittedly cool in concept, but require CGI to fulfill. The CGI work that the finished product delivers doesn't work, makes Neo look like a video game character, and undermines the "I can't believe they are practically doing this one vs hundred brawl" feel it had previously. I can't tell how conflicted the CGI work makes me toward a scene that could have been one of the all-time greats. Instead, it's become a cultural joke and one of those frustrating "what might have been" sequences in cinema history.
5. "Dojo Fight: Morpheus vs. Neo" -The Matrix (1999)
- Commentary: Neo has been unplugged from the Matrix, finally rebuilt his muscle strength, and is now having knowledge and abilities beamed into his brain. One of the skills he is learning is fighting styles, "I know Kung Fu." Morpheus, as a good mentor, decides to guide this new knowledge and challenges Neo to a kung fu fight in the matrix. Their fight is one of the first American films to feature several gravity defying wire work beats; they still look great and hold up well to this day. The Wachowski's score the scene well with Asian drums for the opening moments when Neo is just getting the feel in the early fight. Then it kicks up a notch and we get electronic music to match the kinetic energy. There's several nice fight beats here highlighted by the previously mentioned wire work spots - Neo running up the beam and doing a big back flip likely being the most famous. I love that we can see the actors doing their thing here - this isn't tightly shot with a ton of double work mixed with a couple reaction shots. Those reaction shots though, they are great. When Neo feels the exhilaration after his first round of kung fu and his dawning realization that he can become something greater - you see it on Reeve's face. Equally great here is Fishburne as the master giving the lesson. This dojo scene is an action sequence but it's also a mentor training sequence: Morpheus pushes Neo, "Try and hit me," he drops intriguing questions, "You think that's air your breathing now," and forces Neo to reflect, "How did I beat you?" The scene ends with Neo hitting a gear with his punches that not even Morpheus could reach. This is a perfect example of when action isn't just a time out from the story for some fun bits, but is a intricately connected to the story and character so that by the end of the scene it has really mattered.
GRADE: A-These are great action sequences with some minor issue(s) holding them back. They are typically best in their film and potentially best of the year.
4. "Lobby Shootout & Morpheus Rescue" -The Matrix (1999)
- Commentary: The mastermind of the resistance movement, Morpheus, has been captured by the agents is being held in a skyscraper where he is being interrogated by Agent Smith. Neo and Trinity decide they are going to get him back and thankfully, they are able to load themselves out with whatever guns and bombs they want to. Will the students be able to save the teacher? Classic storytelling. The action sequence to answer that question is built in three distinct phases. The first phase is the iconic shootout sequence in the lobby of the skyscraper where Neo and Trinity walk through security with an entire arsenal of weaponry. They are confronted and we get a shootout between them and dozens of officers. As a kid, this shootout was one of my all-time favorite sequences. It is very good. There's lots of automatic weapons firing, destruction of the walls/pillars, and three or four nice pops of cool looking gunplay along the way. It's basically techno-emo John Woo. The lobby cleared, Neo/Trinity explode a bomb and make their way to the roof to get to a helicopter and rescue Morpheus in the second phase. An agent confronts Neo there and fires a gun at him. This is where we get the infamous "bullet time" dodge as the camera swoops around Neo - a great little indicator to us that Neo is really starting to believe. Despite being done to death, I think the effect still looks cool to this day. They commandeer the helicopter where Neo fires a gatling gun at the agents in the office Morpheus is being held in. The slow motion shots here look awesome. Morpheus wills himself into running, jumping out the window, and toward the helicopter. In a cool stunt Neo jumps out of the helicopter and catches him, but barely hangs on by his hand. Agent Smith fires at the helicopter and Trinity loses control. The final stage of the scene finds the helicopter flying around skyscrapers with Neo and Morpheus hanging on. The helicopter ultimately crashes into the side of the building (in an amazing explosion) and Neo helps to save Trinity. Whew, that was a long recounting because a lot happens in this sequence that essentially ends with everyone believing that Neo is really "The One." A really fun ride with several memorable high spots here.
3. "Subway Fight: Agent Smith vs. Neo" -The Matrix (1999)
- Commentary: One reason this fight sequence is so great is that the film has been quietly building the anticipation of it the entire time and you weren't even quite aware of it. The opening scene of the film has Trinity running scared for her life from an agent despite her unique abilities. That tells us these agents shouldn't be messed with, even by the skilled. We witnessed Neo fight Morpheus and mostly lose until he kicked into that higher gear. We then saw Morpheus take on Agent Smith and get his butt handed to him. This tells us that Neo has no way of winning against smith unless he kicks in that higher gear. The last action sequence with Neo dodging bullets tells us that Neo might be ready, but we never know until he actually tries. Whew - that's a lot of buildup for what amounts to a fight between the hero and villain, but the amount of thoughtful design put into the story so that this fight scene would be a culminating choice and achievement for Neo as well as building up audience anticipation and expectation is a masterclass that deserves to be pointed out. The fight takes place in a subway where Trinity just got out using a pay phone, but Neo wasn't in time. He decides to stay and face Smith. They are at a standoff just like in an American Western but instead of just a quick draw, they run at each other and dive, firing away as the camera does another classic "bullet time" spin around our characters. They both hit the ground with empty chambers. It's the perfect action beat that embodies what the Wachowski's have done here - the running and firing dive is straight out of John Woo's glorious bloodshed playbook, but the slow motion bullet time delivery is the new addition that makes this unique to the franchises style. The two throw away their guns, resigned to fight it out, and we get some nice and forth fight beats between the two of them. Thankfully the fighting is done mostly by the actors, allowing us wide shots, seeing their faces and reactions in real time. I love the particular beat where an inside crescent kick takes out a part of Smith's glasses revealing a very perturbed agent, and one where Smith stops a punch by Neo only to have Neo extend his fingers hitting Smith in the throat. Smith gets the upperhand and holds Smith on the tracks in a headlock waiting for a train to arrive. Neo is able to escape and Smith instead gets run over. Neo then makes a run for an exit. I'll be honest, I don't like this ending at all. First, I've felt this sequence needed a few more fight beats - but that's maybe me just wanting more of a great thing. Second, and more importantly, I don't get how it makes sense for Neo. The whole point we've been building up to is that Neo believes he is the One and decides to face off against an agent. He made that decision, he was basically winning, and then he decides to run for an exit? Screenplay wise, I get it - the writers wanted Neo to only be able to kick into that higher gear when Trinity shared her love - but this delay just never quite works for me. I wish they would have found a way to incorporate the sentinels threatening everyone on the ship and Trinity's declaration of love with Neo's fight and defeat of Smith in the subway somehow. This is an iconic fight, but a couple of serious flaws force me to keep it from a clean 'A'.
Great action sequences that can compete for best of the year and best of all-time.
- Commentary: It was the Neo vs. Hundreds of Agent Smiths fight that got all the hype and talk when this film came out, but it's this group weapons fight against the Merovingians goons that is quietly the best fight sequence of the entire franchise. Do I wish it was more dramatically integrated into the themes and the story like the original Neo vs. Smith showdown? Sure, but this isn't a best dramatic sequences of all-time is it? Great action sequences can be greatly enhanced or undermined by its integration in the story, but they also can stand alone as, "Check out Neo just going to town on these bad guys with all sorts of weapons." That's what this fight is for me - the promise of bigger and better kung fu realized in the Wachowski/Matrix style. Promise kept. The sequence begins with the Merovingians goons (that include vampires) firing automatic weapons at Neo who stops the bullet in front of him with his upraised hand. I love that the Merovingian drops this nasty little foreshadowing line to the architect finale here, "Your predecessors had much more respect." The fight kicks off and we get more Yuen Woo-Ping kung fu goodness as Neo and his opponents use all the different weapons scattered around the walls of the two-story foyer.
Lots of complicated fight beats here, some clean and crisp use of different weapons (including twin sai that are almost never seen outside of Raphael wielding them!), and several awesome wirework moments. I love how some of the wirework is punctuated with wide shots and slow-motion, like that epic wide shot of the all the performers fighting from one side of the foyer to another, and Neo jumping down from the second floor to the first. My favorite choreography beat is Neo's use of the sword on the second floor. That whole moment is done in just a couple of long takes and he is just a beast with it. This is a complicated, perfectly timed, violent, and impressive kung fu fight that makes good on the promise of the sequel. Looking back, perhaps its greatest feat was what the fight didn't include - the use of CGI to step up the fight beats like the Burly Brawl earlier in the film.
An all-time great action sequence. This does not mean it is a technically perfect action sequence, just that it is "perfect" to me. This is one I can watch over and over and it doesn't lose its power.
1. "Highway Chase: Ghosts, Agents, and a Keymaker" -The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
- Commentary: The best sequence in the entire franchise and one of the great car chases of all-time, doesn't even include Keanu Reeve's Neo. That's because Neo is off in another all-time great action sequence facing off against the Merovingians minions (see my #2 scene in this list). If you thought that the Neo vs. Merovingian fight would be the 'A' sequence and then Morpheus and Trinity would get the 'B' grade action sequence, then you thought wrong. This sequence is a masterpiece of creativity and execution. It brings our sci-fi heroes and fantasy villains (ghosts and computer agents) into a string of imaginative and dangerous fights, shootouts, and stunts house within one epic car chase. As Neo handles the Merovingian, Trinity and Morpheus attempt to get the key maker and escape, but they've got both agents and the Merovingian's ghost twins on their tails. The key maker opens a door to a parking garage, but before they can close the door one of the ghosts puts their arm in and keeps it from closing. Trinity shoots his arm several times, but it's not long enough for another ghost to get through. We then learn that when the ghost turns from normal material mode into their "ghost" mode and back, they clear the damage they took - a cool quirk and feature. There's a cool fight beat here where Trinity & Morpheus goes at the ghost twins with weapons giving us some cool visuals where the twins phase in and out of being ghosts depending on when they are about to be hit. Trinity comes around in a Cadillac sedan and the trio of good guys head off with the ghost twins following in a black Cadillac SUV not far behind. After some smooth moves on the streets, Trinity makes her way out of the parking garage and onto a highway while one of the ghost twins is firing an assault rifle at her (there's a beautiful slow-motion shot of them firing at each other while driving through a tunnel here). Out on the freeway they begin swerving in traffic, trying to hide from the automatic fire (that's causing accidents and crashes), but the twins get in front of them. One of the twins phases into their car and we get this creative and inventive fight where everyone in the car is fighting in the tight confines, avoiding the ghosts razor blade, while trying to still drive without accident.
It's during this sequence that the agents really make their presence felt. An agent has gotten on the roof of a cop car (this is all while moving down the freeway), jumps a lane over to the hood of another car (destroying its front end and causing a massive pileup behind) and bounces to another lane on top of Trinity's Cadillac. It's a cool visual effect, the CGI is a bit dated, but because it's sparingly used, it still works. The agent pulls off the roof of the car and is fired upon, Trinity brakes to get him off, and then the ghost is nearly stabbed so he phases out of the car. What a cool and creative moment, brining all those different lines of threat together, but it's not yet over. Another agent in a police car forces Trinity to on off ramp and overpass where Trinity jumps off with the key maker to a motorcycle transport below. Morpheus stays behind and takes out the ghost twins SUV with a John Woo approved swipe of a samurai sword and machine gunning their gas tank. The slow-motion visual effect and explosion are fantastic.
Trinity grabs a Ducati motorcycle (with the key maker on board) and weaves in and out of highway traffic. After a semi gets taken over by an agent she is forced to go against traffic to avoid him. This leads to a harrowing chase beat where to avoid police she weaves in and out of oncoming traffic. Sure, the cars are CGI, but for the most part, they are seamless CGI. She eventually comes upon Morpheus waiting atop a semi-trailer and they pass off the key maker in a cool stunt. This brings us to the final part of the sequence as an agent jumps atop the trailer and confronts Morpheus. It's a decent fight, heavy on the wire work (okay and more CGI than I'd like), but it works - especially once Morpheus re-acquires his sword. I love Niobe's surprise save and Morpheus' wire work jump and save of the key maker. The final big moment here is a major crash where a flying Neo suddenly arrives and grabs both Morpheus and the key maker out of the fiery crash and brings them to safety. The effect work here is dated CGI, but for some reason I think it absolutely works - particularly on an emotional level. The quick cut back to Link celebrating always brings a smile to the face and (from my experience) applause from the audience. In total, the sequence is about 17 minutes long and if you include Neo's Merovingian fight is about 21 minutes straight of action. It is an ambitious amalgamation of action genres and styles - a genuine melting pot of action. It's a masterpiece of cinema and the best action sequence in the Matrix franchise.
Anyone else ever think like me, "I might have taken Cypher's deal"?