Last week, we took a look at two versions of Obi-Wan fighting Darth Vader on the Death Star, and how simpler fights can be more engaging due to a reliance on story instead of visual effects. In other words, placing more emphasis on the emotional reason behind a fight than on how flashy the fight itself is.
After finishing the article, I got thinking about films that featured fights that were both flashy, and visually engaging. The other Star Wars films were a good candidate due to their blend of science fiction and fantasy, but I wanted to try something different. Then it struck me: Why not take a look at The Matrix and it’s sequels? The series has some amazing duels that combine a compelling story with amazing visuals, but it also has some fights that aren’t quite as engaging despite a hefty special effects budget.
Therefore, for the next three weeks, we’ll be taking a look at all the duels in the original Matrix trilogy, and see what we can learn about the art of combining fists with great storytelling. This week, we’ll start things off with the original 1999 classic:
Neo sparring with Morpheus
Emotional Context: Morpheus teaching Neo about how the Matrix works, and that he needs belief in himself as much as his skills in the martial arts
Analysis: What makes this fight unique in the Matrix trilogy is that it’s only one of two times where two characters fight without trying to kill each other (the other being Neo fighting Seraph). Despite being only a training session instead of a no-holds-barred battle to the death, the scene manages to have several layers: Aside from the impressive fight between Neo and Morpheus, we see the start of Neo’s journey from excited novice (I just love seeing his excitement at 1:15) to being The One, and learning how knowing kung-fu isn’t enough to defeat your opponents as he tries style after style to take out Morpheus.
But among all the punches, kicks, jumps, and spins, the scene is also an entertaining expositional moment, telling Neo (and us) more about how the Matrix works, and how the mind can be as important as matter when you’re inside (Morpheus’ quote about strength, speed, and air in a computer simulation is as thought-provoking today as it was 20 years ago).
For fans re-watching the film, the scene also subtly sets up Morpheus and Neo’s fight with Smith later on. While they get to show off their impressive hand-to-hand fighting skills for us, such skills won’t do much good against an agent.
Morpheus vs Agent Smith
Emotional context: Morpheus willingly sacrifices himself to save Neo, knowing that he can’t beat Smith.
Analysis: While The Matrix has plenty of action, it’s surprising how long it takes for the first one-on-one fight against the machines to happen, and when it does, Neo isn’t the combatant. Instead, he’s the catalyst that causes Morpheus to engage in a suicide duel against Smith.
Up to this point, Morpheus has been the calm, focused mentor with years of experience under his belt. He effortlessly defeated Neo in the sparring program, calmly helped his group escape from the SWAT team, and has been the rock that both Neo and the audience can hold onto as a new and dangerous world of evil machines is revealed to us. He’s skilled, he’s smart, and he can fight better than most people alive… and it doesn’t do him any good.
Morpheus’ fight against Smith isn’t really much of a fight. He certainly does his best, but Smith easily beats him to a bloody pulp. The most memorable thing about the fight is seeing just how easily Smith defeats such a skilled and talented warrior with almost no effort, and in the process shows us just how dangerous agents really are, and that not even a master like Morpheus can beat them, reinforcing that the system Neo and the others are trying to take down doesn’t mess around.
Emotional context: Neo now believes in himself enough to take on an agent, even though he may die in the process.
Analysis: When it comes to the best action scenes of the Matrix trilogy, the subway fight always comes out on top (or nearly it), and rightfully so: Neo, instead of running away from an agent like any sane person would do, decides to stand his ground and fight, pushing himself to the limit. It’s a darker reprisal of the dojo fight, and instead of instructing Neo on philosophy and how to believe in himself, Smith just wants to pound him into a bloody pulp on the wall (the sheer venom in his voice when he tells Neo how much he’s going to enjoy watching him die is chilling).
While the fights would get bigger and grander as the series continued, this fight – in my opinion – is the best in the trilogy. Instead of feeling like a carefully rehearsed and highly choreographed fight scene, it feels like a real fight. Neo and Smith hit and kick each other. Neo bleeds, gets scuffed up, and is exhausted at the end. Smith unleashes everything he has at Neo, and comes within moments of killing him, only to be defeated at the last second, and even then, he respawns seconds later, at which point Neo wisely decides to run away. But even then, the fight proves that Neo is special: As far as we – and the characters – know, this is the first time anyone has ever beaten an Agent in a one-on-one fight.
Neo vs Agent Smith Rematch
Emotional context: Neo, who is now The One, shows off just how powerful he is, making the machines realize that they can not only be beaten, but destroyed, turning the tide in the war of man vs machine.
Analysis: Okay, this is barely even a fight. It’s more of a one-sided beatdown by a digital god showing off how totally awesome he is, but there’s no denying how satisfying it is. We see Neo at his peak; nowhere else in the trilogy is he this powerful, intimidating, or awe-inspiring. Smith clobbered Morpheus, mercilessly beat Neo, and then killed him. Yet, with Neo now at full power, Smith is a joke, and is subsequently destroyed from the inside out, a sight that causes the otherwise emotionless agents to run away as fast as they can. It’s glorious, and a highly-satisfying climax to a fantastic film.
Tune in next week were we’ll take a look at The Matrix Reloaded, and the biggest variety of fights the series has to offer.