I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 2

Last week, we took a look at the duels in the first Matrix film. Being the biggest surprise of 1999 (quite a feat considering the cultural juggernaut that was ‘The Phantom Menace’), it’s not surprising the film got two sequels, and bigger budgets to allow for more lavish and spectacular action scenes. But is bigger always better? Let stake a look at ‘Reloaded’s duels and find out.

Neo vs Upgraded Agents

Emotional Context: Neo holds off three agents from getting to his fellow rebels.

Analysis: The first duel in ‘Reloaded’ is short, but shows how Neo has grown since the first film. No longer is he the wide-eyed rebel who was pushed to the brink of death trying to defeat Smith in a fight: now he’s a stylishly-dressed warrior monk who can easily take out three agents without breaking a sweat, all with a minimum of flashy moves. It’s a brief, but effective fight that tells us a lot about Neo’s skills, setting the stage for his later fights.

Neo vs Seraph

Emotional Context: Neo duels Seraph to prove that he’s worthy of seeing the Oracle

Analysis: This duel feels like a logical attempt to inject some action into a scene that would otherwise play out like this:

Neo: Hello?

Seraph: You seek the Oracle.

Neo: Yes.

Seraph: What is your name?

Neo: Neo

Seraph: Can I see your ID?

*Neo hands Seraph his driver’s license*

Seraph: Good. Come. She is waiting.

In the film’s defense, having Seraph test his visitors by fighting them to see how determined they are to see the Oracle is an intriguing way of vetting someone’s character. But at this point in the story, Neo needs to get to the Oracle and discuss vital information regarding saving Zion. Pausing the film to have him fight Seraph just slows things down when the story needs to keep going.

The Burly Brawl

Emotional Context: None.

Analysis: If you were to ask a fan of the Matrix series what scene they would choose to sum up ‘Reloaded’, the Burly Brawl would be a good choice. As one of the more hyped scenes of the film before its release, it’s an impressive feat of CGI and visual spectacle, managing to pit Neo against a hundred Agent Smiths at once. However, while this scene is fun to watch, it has one substantial flaw: It does nothing to advance the story. Zion has less than twenty four hours before the machines come in and blast it into dust, and Neo, having just learned about the Keymaker’s existence, should logically want to find him as quickly as possible. Instead, he takes several minutes out of his busy schedule to fight multiple Smiths before realizing that punching, kicking, and hitting them doesn’t seem to be working (with the exception of the Smith who literally breaks into pieces upon hitting a glass wall at 1:43 in the second clip) and flies away.

The Burly Brawl is impressive from a technical and cinematic viewpoint, but it doesn’t advance the story in a meaningful way outside of showing that Smith can now make copies of himself, and that Neo is now really good at fighting. A more logical fight could have Neo trying to get away to find the Keymaker, only to be swarmed by Smith doing everything in his power to keep him grounded and assimilated. Or, we could go with the fight as it was presented in ‘The Path of Neo’ and have Neo resort to taking out the buildings to stop Smith before flying away:

The Twins Fight

Emotional Context: Morpheus and Neo fight to get the Keymaker to safety while holding off two foes they can’t defeat.

Analysis: While it’s the shortest duel in the film, this brief fight comes closest to the feel of the original film. Morpheus and Trinity – while highly-skilled – aren’t Neo. We know they can be hurt or killed, making them the underdogs as they struggle to hold off the French prick’s Merovingian’s albino henchmen, who can materialize and de-materialize at will, making it exceedingly difficult – if not impossible – to put them down for good. Morpheus and Trinity are outclassed here, adding considerably more suspense and a sense of danger than if Neo were fighting, but they manage to accomplish their goal of getting the Keymaker to safety, showing that in stories, running away from a fight can be a better choice than trying to defeat an antagonist.

Morpheus vs the Agent

Emotional Context: Morpheus has to protect the Keymaker from being killed by an agent.

Analysis: What I like about this fight (which is my favorite in ‘Reloaded’) is that it’s essentially a rematch between Morpheus and Smith… once again, Morpheus doesn’t win. Morpheus may be Neo’s mentor, but he’s still the underdog here, struggling to survive against a vastly-superior opponent while protecting the Keymaker; unlike Neo, he’s hit quite a bit and thrown around, coming dangerously close to death several times, and not even wielding a sword against an unarmed opponent is enough to secure victory, giving the fight a sense of danger and urgency.

In the end, Morpheus only wins by taking advantage of the agent being distracted: Like the duel with the Twins, Morpheus’ victory isn’t in defeating his opponent, but in getting out of the fight alive while completing his objective. Personal glory or victory means nothing when there’s something greater is on the line.

Hallway fight

Emotional Context: Neo and Morpheus have to get to the door leading to the Architect while also protecting the Keymaker

Analysis: The last duel of ‘Reloaded’ could be seen as a mini-version of the Burly Brawl, but is, in my opinion, much better. It has a solid goal for both the protagonists and antagonists (Get the Keymaker to the right door, and stop/assimilate the heroes, respectively), but the tight confines makes Neo, Morpheus, and the Keymaker’s escape a difficult proposition, not to mention being outnumbered. Even better, this is one time where Neo’s superhuman abilities are negated: he can handle Smith by himself, but he has to protect Morpheus and the Keymaker, who aren’t as strong as him, which adds more suspense to the scene. And as a final twist, we, the viewer, know that if Neo and the others get to the door before Trinity disarms the bombs, they’ll be blown to pieces. Thus, we have a paradox: Neo and the others have to get to the Architect’s door, but if they get to it too soon, they’ll die, and they don’t know that.

Though it may be quite small for a final fight of a film, the Hallway Fight is a great example of a fight that moves the plot forward, has multiple layers beyond ‘punch everyone to death,’ and adds in some twists that the audience knows about, but the characters don’t.

Tune in next week, where we’ll take a look at the duels of the third and final Matrix film, ‘The Matrix Revolutions.’

Favorite Moments: IT + The Lord of the Rings

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

Why it’s great:

Today’s video is a great example of fans taking two unrelated franchises and combining them to create something new and fascinating. In this case, combining the Lord of the Rings trilogy with the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘It’ to create a version of Middle Earth where the greatest threat isn’t an evil ring, but an evil clown.

While it’s amusing to see Gandalf getting creeped out at seeing Pennywise, or Frodo shaking as a bloody balloon floats his way, what’s great about this crossover is how it stimulates the imagination into thinking how Middle-Earth would react to the presence of such an evil, shape-shifting entity from Earth. Would Gandalf be able to deafeat him? What would Pennywise do if he got the Ring? What would happen if he and Sauron got into a fight?

The best fiction, in my opinion, invites our imaginations to play around with wondering what might happen beyond the pages or the screen. We only get a few snippets of Pennywise interacting with the Fellowship and the denzins of Middle-Earth here, but it’s fun to wonder what might happen if he met other characters or went to places not shown in the video, and a reminder that writers don’t have to show or explain everything: Leaving some blank spots for our readers to fill in for themselves lets them conjure exciting scenarios and ideas beyond what we could ever hope to put on the page or on the screen.

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 1

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.

Subway Showdown

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.

Whoa.

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.

Slow and Focused, Fast and Furious: A Comparison of Two Lightsaber Duels

When fans go see a new film set in the Star Wars saga, they expect to certain elements: spaceships, the Force, Jedi and Sith, space battles, and the inevitable lightsaber duel at the film’s climax. It’s the last that’s perhaps most looked forward to, where the filmmakers to let their creativity shine with excellently choreography, exciting backdrops, and emotional intensity. Yet, it’s easy to forget that the world’s first experience with lightsabers in ‘A New Hope’ was watching a 59 year old space wizard and an asthmatic cyborg poking at each other and doing unnecessary spins on the Death Star. Compared to the duels that came in the prequel and sequel trilogies, the first lightsaber fight in history is charmingly quaint.

But what if the first lightsaber fight of the Star Wars saga was more frantic, chaotic, and dangerous? Thanks to a dedicated fan (fans?), we finally have an answer with ‘Scene 38 Reimagined,’ a remake that uses CGI to allow Obi-Wan and Vader to be faster, more maneuverable, and destructive during their fight.

When I fist learned of the remake back in 2017, I was excited to see how it would turn out, as the trailer showed a fight that seemed to strike an ideal balance between the hard-hitting, rougher duels of the original trilogy, and the flashy (but enjoyable) extravagance of the prequel trilogy. And while the end result is indeed impressive, I noticed that something was missing. Puzzled, I rewatched the video a few times before realizing what it was: the fight’s emotional core.

In the original fight, the focus of the duel is on the emotional state between Obi-Wan and Vader. It’s the first time they’ve seen each other in 20 years. They were once friends and allies who fought to save the Galactic Republic, but are now enemies, and the focus of the fight isn’t on their skills or how powerful their blows are. In fact, most of the fighting is with words: Vader, wanting revenge on Obi-Wan for their duel on Mustafar, tries to crush Obi-Wan’s spirit, proclaiming his power and mastery over the Force. Obi-Wan, however, isn’t moved. He easily brushes off Vader’s taunts and sacrifices himself to help Luke and the others escape.

The reimagined fight, however, takes a different approach. While the verbal spars are still present, a greater focus is placed on the fight itself. And what a fight it is! Lightsabers slice into walls, fires are ignited, punches and headbutts are thrown, the Force is used to hurl both combatants around, and every attack is faster and more powerful than in 1977. It’s a visual treat, and an exciting reimagening of what might have been, had George Lucas possessed the resources to make something dazzling and visceral.

However, there’s a trade-off here: With the cruder lightsaber effects of the time, ‘A New Hope’ had to focus on the emotional aspect of Obi-Wan and Vader fighting. The reimagening’s focus on better, flashier visuals, which, in my opinion, takes the focus away from why the two are fighting. It’s still a fun sequence, but in my opinion, the quieter, more focused fight in the original packs more of an emotional punch. As the sayings go, bigger is not always better, and less is sometimes more: An emotional, intimate focus is what makes the Obi-Wan and Vader fight so compelling, not how they’re great swordfighters.

For writers, the big lesson that comes from comparing the two scenes is that the emotional context behind a fight is more important than the fight itself. All the fanciest moves, the best fight choreography, and the best visual effects money can buy will only get you so far if your audience isn’t invested in what’s going on. Conversely, if your audience is invested in seeing two characters fight each other, you’ll have a much better chance of creating a great fight that will stick with them for years.

Favorite Moments: ‘Jason takes NASA’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

Why it’s great:

Years before he blasted off into outer space and became an undead cyborg, Jason Voorhees’ exploits were confined to terra firma. But in 1995, MADTV had Jason head off to the stars. While quite tame by ‘Friday’ standards, this is still a great little clip (especially the mission controller having to constantly revise his inspirational mantra based on Jason’s bodycount), and one can’t help but wonder if the writers of ‘Jason X’ saw this sketch and thought to themselves, ‘hey, that’s not a bad idea!’. Whether it happened or not, it’s amusing how this sketch unknowingly predicted the future of the ‘Friday’ franchise, thus becoming a great example of media unknowingly predicting something that would later come true.

Three Fridays: A Comparison of ‘Friday the 13’ – Finale

For the past few decades, Hollywood has increasingly remade or rebooted its more famous stories at an ever-increasing rate. While this can be attributed to cashing in on brand-name recognition or nostalgia (or creative bankruptcy, as some might say), it does allow us to see how a story can be told in two different ways, for better or worse. Sometimes the remake is an almost straight-up copy, while the other goes for a radically different interpretation. Even rarer is the example of one story told more than twice, or even three times (how many Spider-Man origin stories do we have, now?). The original ‘Friday the 13th’ falls into that elusive category.

Over the past three weeks, we’ve taken a look at the three adaptions of Jason’s origin story. If, by chance you missed them, here’s some handy links:

The 1980 film

The 2009 remake

The 2019 comic

When comparing all three, one major factor keeps coming up: When you take away everything connecting the stories to the franchise at large, they are largely generic slasher tales: Everything else about them, the remote location, young adults being picked off one by one, a mysterious killer, the final girl, etc. can be found in any horror, slasher, or thriller. But what elevates the 1980 and 2019 versions is their killer, Ms. Voorhees. Unlike so many other slasher villains (including her son), she elevates herself not by being a bloodthirsty savage with an absurd body count, but by being a sympathetic killer, a mother consumed by grief and rage who wants both vengeance and to spare other children from the stupidity of horny camp counselors.

Thus, the ultimate takeaway from the original ‘Friday’ is the importance of giving our killers more motivation beyond, ‘kill, kill, KILL!’ Unless we’re writing inhuman monsters like a shark, an alien, or an elder god from a forgotten faith, it’s imperative to give them a relatable objective. Maybe they’re killing to avenge loved ones, or to get revenge on those who wronged them. They might kill because they’re mentally ill and believe they’re pleasing their overcontrolling parents. Maybe they’ve come from the future to kill all those who will one day be part of a dictatorship that rules the world. Perhaps they’re killing to prevent people from finding an ancient and dangerous artifact that could destroy the world. Or maybe they’re convinced they’re doing God’s will and killing people they think God hates.

Whatever the reason for embarking on a murder spree, giving killers a motivation we can understand helps us make them stand out, even if the story they’re in is typical and unremarkable. There will always be room for killers who are unknowable forces of pure evil (Michael Meyers comes to mind), but those who we can help our readers identify with will stay with them long after the killings end.