Ever since the creation of CGI, Hollywood showdowns have become more elaborate than ever before. Once limited by what could be accomplished in camera, we can now enjoy the spectacle of people flying, jumping, kicking, and beating the tar out of each other in elaborate environments, using feats that could only be accomplished with the aid of computers. However, bigger, better effects don’t always lead to better fights.
The Matrix trilogy, as a whole, mostly avoids the problem of emotionally hollow duels. When taken in as one continuous story, the Matrix saga (including ‘The Animatrix’ and ‘Enter the Matrix’) has a strong start and a strong ending: The stakes are high, the risks are high, and Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity are all in real danger when they fight. But it’s the second act, with ‘Reloaded,’ that things stumble. There’s plenty of fights and duels, but it often feels more like spectacle than a clash where anyone can die, or be seriously injured. The fight against Seraph, for example, feels like padding in a film that’s already taking an unusually long time to get going, and the Burly Brawl – while being a visual treat – adds little to the story beyond showing that Smith can clone himself, and foreshadowing Neo’s final line in the series.
In going through the Matrix series again for these articles, I realized that there was something else I didn’t pick up on until I had seen all the movies and games: Many of the duels and fights in ‘Reloaded’ could be trimmed or even cut out, and that’s because:
1. The duels mostly feel like action for the sake of action.
2. It doesn’t feel like the characters are in danger, or that or that terrible things will happen if they fail
The first and third film’s duels work because it’s clear that if Neo and his companions fail, the repercussions will be awful; when Neo fights Bane onboard the Logos, you can feel the desperation and urgency as he and Bane clobber each other. When Morpheus fights Smith in the first film, you know he’s in a losing battle. People get hurt, scuffed up, and bleed. In ‘Reloaded,’ however, that sense of danger is mostly gone, save for When Neo and Morpheus fight Smith in the hallway on the way to the Architect. Duels frequently end with people and programs walking away none the worse for wear. If both the protagonist and the antagonist are obviously going to walk away unscathed, then there’s no urgency or danger, and the audience won’t be as involved than if they knew that, say, Trinity could have her head cut off with a chainsaw if she fails to outrun Agent Smith.
So, what can we learn from the Matrix series when it comes to duels?
*Any duel works best when it has a strong reason to take place, and that there are repercussions if the protagonist fails.
*Make sure that your characters can get tired and suffer injuries, such as being cut, sliced, smashed, or having broken noses, busted lips, or even snapped limbs (it’s jarring how Neo can fight hundreds of Smiths without so much as a bruise, scrape, or broken glasses).
*Make sure the duel have a solid reason for existing. If it assists or impedes the antagonist and protagonist in reaching their goal and moves the story along, it will likely turn out well. If the duel is primarily to showcase an action scene, it might need to be revamped, or scrapped altogether.
Follow these three guidelines, and we can make duels that grip viewers and don’t let go, whether they’re simple fistfights in a room, or elaborate spectacles made by the best CGI Hollywood has to offer.
If you’d like to reread previous entries in this series (in chronological order), you can find them here: