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

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:

The Matrix

The Animatrix

The Matrix Reloaded

Enter the Matrix

The Matrix Revolutions

The Matrix: Path of Neo

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 4

We continue our examination of the duels of ‘The Matrix’ saga this week with a look at the animated anthology film, ‘The Animatrix,’ which, like ‘Enter the Matrix,’ presents several side stories that help flesh out to the film’s universe. Unlike other entries in the series, it’s light on duels, having just two of them, but one of them is one of the series’ best.

Thadeus and Jue spar

Emotional Context: A ship’s captain and his lover spar for fun and relaxation (and possibly sex)

Analysis: If you’re looking for an attention-grabbing way to start off a story, it’s hard to go with a swordfight where both participants are blindfolded, phenomenally skilled with swords, and whose preferred method of foreplay is slicing each other’s clothes off… only to have their fun interrupted by homicidal robot squid.

Storywise, this duel helps to establish Jue and Thadeus’ skills in the Matrix; specifically, their agility and coordination, which will come in handy when Jue pulls off some extremely harrowing jumps that would leave anyone else with shattered legs. But what’s more important – and subtle – is that it establishes their emotional bond. Both are so comfortable with each other that they’re willing to swing swords at each other for fun, and that familiarity and affection adds to the stakes as the two fight to ensure Zion will know of the oncoming attack by the machines: Thadeus works to keep their attackers at bay long enough for Jue to complete her drop. Both know what’s at stake, and trust in each other to complete their missions. They do, but at the cost of their lives.

Duo attempts to convince Cis to re-enter the Matrix

Emotional Context: A man attempts to convince his friend to re-enter the Matrix

Analysis: Of all the duels in the Matrix trilogy, few have the fight itself be so integral to the story. In this instance, ‘Program’ is all about such a duel, balancing swordplay with emotional sparring as one character attempts to persuade a friend to join him in abandoning Zion and re-entering the Matrix, with the emotions and destruction increasing in pitch until the climax. There are no wasted shots here; everything is tight, focused, and constantly moves the story forward, without any action for the sake of action, eventually culminating in the revelation that the whole thing was a training exercise.

What I like about this duel is how it manages a perfect balance between action and the conflict between the two characters, a conflict that makes us, the viewer, ask if we would want to go back to an fake world or live in a harsh, hard one: While Cis is told she passed the test, I couldn’t help but be struck by the saying, ‘What’s real doesn’t matter; what matters is how we live our lives.’ It made us wonder if there is a correct answer to the test. People aligned with Zion would say that reality is more important, while those in the Matrix would say otherwise. When duels make their viewers ponder their own philosophical views long after the movie is over, it proves that some of the best fights are about a clash of ideas, and not bloodshed.

However, while this is an excellent duel, I personally think that Duo is perhaps attacking a bit too hard here; if you’re trying to convince someone to abandon their life and join you, trying to chop them in half is not a good way to do it. However, this can be interpreted as Duo’s increasing anger at Cis’ refusal to join him, so your millage may vary. Still, it’s worth remembering that a character generally won’t convince another to join her/him/it by trying to kill them. Better to play around with them instead of trying to hack off body parts.

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

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 3

This week, I was going to take a look at the duels in the movie, ‘The Matrix Revolutions’, but I realized there were two other chapters of the Matrix series that I had forgotten about: The 2003 direct-to-dvd anthology series, ‘The Animatrix,’ and the videogame, ‘Enter the Matrix,’ which looks at the events of ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ from the perspective of Niobe and Ghost, two minor characters who appeared briefly in the film and its follow-up. While neither are required viewing for fans of the films, both do a good job expanding the Matrix universe, and today, we’ll take a look at the duels in ‘Enter.’

Please note that while there are several duels in in ‘Enter the Matrix,’ many – like Niobe and Ghost’s fights against the leaders of the Merovingian’s vampire and werewolf henchmen – add little to the story beyond needing to defeat an enemy to progress or rescue someone, so we’ll be looking at the more substantial and interesting fights.

Niobe vs Agent Johnson

Emotional Context: Niobe has to defeat an agent so she can escape with her life

Analysis: The first big duel of the game has Niobe saving one of her fellow Zion operatives from the cargo hold of a C-5 galaxy in flight. But after saving him, she then has to deal with an agent; unlike Neo, Niobe is an average Matrix operative who can’t stop bullets or fly. She’s facing a foe far stronger, faster, and more skilled than her, and who can’t be defeated with martial arts or bullets, while trapped on a plane and unable to escape.

This fight is a good example of how duels can be more interesting when one character is hopelessly outmatched, and victory is a matter of surviving, not killing an opponent. In this instance, Niobe – the underdog who doesn’t stand a chance of defeating Agent Johnson in a one-on-one fight – triumphs by opening the cargo hatch and knocking Johnson off the plane.

Ghost vs Trinity

Emotional Context: Ghost and Trinity spar to let off some steam and relax

Analysis: Much like Neo sparring with Morpheus in the first film, this duel is not about killing anyone or fighting to complete an objective in the war between humans and machines. It’s two characters relaxing during some downtime by sparring with each other. It’s easy to label this fight as pure fanservice, as it gives players the chance to duel Trinity, and could be cut from the game without affecting the storyline. But it does help to build upon ‘Enter the Matrix’s most surprising storyline: Trinity’s relationship with Ghost. Unlike so many other love triangles featuring people squabbling and sparring over who loves who, ‘Enter’ has both Ghost and Trinity acknowledge that while they love each other as friends, their relationship will never go beyond that, and they’re okay with it.

Ghost vs Agent Johnson

Emotional Context: Ghost has to defeat an agent so he can blow up a nuclear power plant, or the mission will fail, Neo will not be able to see the Architect, and every human on Earth will die. So, no pressure or anything

Analysis: This duel plays out almost exactly like Niobe’s fight against Johnson on the C-5 earlier in the game, with an underdog having to defeat a superior opponent using their wits. What’s different, though, are the stakes. Earlier, Niobe was saving a fellow Zion operative. Here, Ghost has to keep Agent Johnson from killing him so that the reactor can be destroyed, allowing Neo to save humanity. If Ghost dies, the plan will be thrown into chaos, and Neo will fail, raising the stakes and giving the outcome of the fight much greater weight.

Ghost/Niobe vs Seraph

Emotional Context: Ghost/Niobe have to prove themselves to Seraph so that they can see the Oracle

Analysis: Much like Ghost’s fight against Trinity, this duel is about giving players another opportunity to fight against one of the characters from the films. However, unlike Neo’s spar with Seraph in ‘Reloaded,’ the duel doesn’t slow down the pacing of the game’s story, since it comes later instead of earlier. It also explains that Seraph doesn’t fight people to see who they are, but to test their heart’s resolve, a much more focused and specific answer than, ‘you do not know someone until you fight them.’

Tune in next week, where we’ll take a look at the duels in ‘The Animatrix.’