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.
Why it’s great
Here’s an interesting mental exercise to try when you’ve finished your next book or screenplay: If all the characters in your story were put into an enclosed area and forced to fight to the death, who would win?
That’s the premise behind this video, which features every dinosaur in the game, ‘Jurassic World Evolution’ (up to that point) released into a single, large enclosure to fight for survival, and see who would come out on top. As you might imagine, it’s… well, it gets pretty chaotic as herbivores and carnivores duke it out to see who wins the privilege of being the last one standing, to have the privilege of being lord of all they survey, to stand tall on Isla Nublar and bellow forth their call of triumph as they’re pelted with popcorn by gawking tourists for the rest of their lives.
While I’ve always found massive free-for all battles fascinating, it wasn’t until this video that I realized why: The fewer contestants there are, the higher the drama gets, and if one of your favorite characters is among the last few standing, you’ll hope against hope that they’ll survive (I was rooting for the Spinosaurus and the T-rex), even though fortunes can turn in an instant, and death is only one mistake away.
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:
Last week, we took a look at the two duels of ‘The Matrix Revolutions,’ the final film of the fabled sci-fi trilogy. But while it was the last movie (at least, to date, if rumors of a Morpheus-centered prequel ever come to fruition), there were two more Matrix video games released in 2005: ‘The Matrix Online’ (which is no longer playable), and ‘The Matrix: Path of Neo,’ which allows players to replay the events of the movies from Neo’s perspective.
Like all movie tie-in games, ‘Path’ modifies the events of the films to better suit the interactive nature of the medium, featuring far more action, gunplay, and fights, including all the major duels from the series. I was originally planning just to analyze at the Super Burly Brawl, but after taking a look at the game to refresh my memory, I found that there was one other duel that’s so bonkers that it’s easily the wackiest thing the series has ever created:
Neo vs Ant-Men
Emotional Context: In his quest to save humanity, Neo fights anthropomorphic ants in the depths of space.
Analysis: When you saw ‘The Matrix’ for the first time, did you ever imagine that lowly hacker Thomas Anderson – who helps his landlady take out her garbage – would one day fight giant ants in space? No? Well, neither did I, but thanks to ‘Path,’ we can now see that Neo’s true destiny was not to save humanity and the machines from a mutually destructive relationship, but to battle giant ants in the depths of the cosmos.
In all seriousness, what makes this duel stand out is just the sheer absurdity of the fact that Neo is fighting giant ants in space. Instead of a trench-coated program, an agent, or a police officer, he takes on giant insects who squeak and roar as they fight him. It’s like watching James Bond take on a homicidal clown inside a bathroom at the White House, or Harry Potter battling a tyrannosaurus rex at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.
Depending on what movie they’re watching, what book they’re reading, or what game they’re playing, audiences expect fights to be consistant with the universe of the story they’re watching. To have such an unexpected opponent grabs their attention because it’s new and unique, feeding the novelty of encountering the unexpected and keeping them interested, much like that one time Luke Skywalker fought a clone of Darth Vader who turned into a giant scorpion. (link contains language that is not safe for work)
Fun fact: In addition to the ants, Neo was originally also going to fight leprechauns in ‘Path,’ but they were deleted from the finished version. Shame; the universe is a darker, bleaker place having never seen the savior of humanity fight midgets shrieking about their gold and presumably attacking with rainbows.
The Super Burly Brawl (Path of Neo Edition)
Emotional Context: Neo battles Agent Smith to save humanity and the machines
Analysis: At first glance, the ‘Path’ adaptation of this fight is almost identical to the one seen in ‘Revolutions.’ But without counting the changes made for a more exiting gameplay experience (more fighting, extended arenas, etc.) the game makes one big change:
Neo wins the fight.
While the film version of the Super Burly Brawl was about Neo sacrificing himself to give both humanity and machines a chance at a brighter tomorrow, the game version is about punching Smith to death, culminating with Mega Smith – a Godzilla-sized version of the agent that Neo then punches to death before once again entering Smith and deleting him from the inside out, as he did in the first film, leading to peace between the machines and humanity, and a triumphant playing of Queen’s ‘We are the Champions.’
Much like how the various versions of ‘Friday the 13th’ allowed us to see threedifferentversions of the same story, ‘Path of Neo’ allows us to see two versions of the same fight. While the film version is about drama, death, and sacrifice, the game version is about action, good triumphing over evil, and fan service. The only mistake the fight makes is not showing what happened to Neo after deleting Smith for good (in any story, there needs to be some sort of resolution for the characters we’ve followed, even if it’s just a ‘we don’t know what happened to them, but they’re still out there, somewhere’ ending), but as a fan, it’s so satisfying to see Neo have the upper hand throughout, and making it so that he’s the one to ram Smith into the streets, instead of the other way around.
While this version of the Super Burly Brawl may not have the dramatic weight of its movie counterpart, it does satisfy the base urge to see the protagonist resoundingly defeat the antagonist in a fight where both are at the peak of their abilities. There’s always room for self-sacrifice in fiction, but sometimes it’s refreshing to embrace the classic trope of the protagonist defeating evil without dying in the process, and looking awesome while doing it. Or, as Youtube user LovecraftianToenail put it:
‘it takes a lot more maturity to have fun than to be GRIMDARK SERIOUS ABOUT EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME.’
And with that, we conclude our look at all the duels in the Matrix series. Come back next week, when we’re wrap things up and see what lessons we can learn from all these punches, kicks, and bullet-time shenanigans.
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.
Why it’s great:
It a fight featuring two muscular men fighting each other, then ripping off their shirts for no reason (and revealing heavily oiled-chests) and then continuing to fight, all while yelling “Rrrrraaaaahhhhh!” and “Yaaahhhhh!” over and over while cheesy 90’s synth music plays. And that’s before a lady charges into the fight with a broken arm and a towel.
Many people would call this fight lame or terrible. For me, though, it’s so ridiculous that it becomes awesome, showing that a fight scene doesn’t have to feature perfect choreography, music, or even a big budget to be memorable and fun. And if you’re looking for an improved version, you can try this fan version that features improved sound effects:
Last week, we took a look at the two duels featured in ‘The Animatrix,’ and today we’ll look at the only two duels in the final film of the Matrix franchise, ‘The Matrix Revolutions.” But as the old saying goes, quality is better than quantity, and in my opinion, these two duels are among the best in the series.
Neo vs Smith in Real Life
Emotional Context: Neo fights to keep Smith from killing both him and Trinity before they can reach the Machine City and end the war between man and machine.
Analysis: After the spectacle of tightly-choreographed duels in ‘Reloaded’, ‘Enter’ and ‘The Animatrix,’ the first duel in ‘Revolutions’ is surprisingly brutal: Neo or Smith, unable to use their otherwordly abiliites, try to kill each other with whatever they can get their hands on, whether it be their fists, the walls, or power cables. This brutality leads to Smith’s face being coated in blood, poor Neo having his eyes burned out, and ending with Smith’s head being bashed into bloody chunks.
What sets this duel apart from any other in the series is its brutality and horror atmosphere: Neo and Trinity are trapped inside a tiny hovercraft in the abandoned sewer tunnels of humanity’s old cities, miles from help. They’re initially outmatched and outsmarted by Smith, and if they fail to stop him, both humanity and the machines are doomed. And when the fighting begins, there’s no fancy martial arts and no elegant, dance-like fight choreography: Neo can’t fly, stop bullets, effortlessly jump around, or tirelessly fight off hundreds of opponents. Smith can’t dodge bullets, punch through concrete, or otherwise use any of the powers he normally has. Both are evenly matched, and fancy moves are thrown aside in favor of banging faces against walls, throwing punches as hard as possible, and trying to choke Smith to death, followed by Neo getting an eyeful (haha) of exposed power cables. It’s a visceral example of how brutal fights can be more memorable than fancy ones.
Yet, for how dark and grim this duel is, it smartly lightens the mood by having Neo – having sacrificed his eyes – gain the ability to see the energy put out by machines, allowing him to kill Smith… and even crack a joke to Trinity about how she’ll need to drive, ending an otherwise deadly serious fight with some much-welcomed levity.
The Super Burly Brawl
Emotional Context: Neo faces Smith one final time to stop him from destroying both humanity and the machines.
Analysis: And so, after four years, we finally come to the final confrontation of the Matrix series, the final showdown between Neo and Smith that would decide the fate of Earth and everyone – mechanical or organic – who lived upon it. And like any climax, ‘Revolutions’ holds nothing back in giving us a spectacle worthy for the ages, featuring:
*A fight that will decide whether good or evil will prevail
*A battle at night in the rain
*A fight that spans multiple locations
*Gigantic sonic booms.
In terms of sheer spectacle, the Super Burly Brawl has no equal in the Matrix saga, both in fighting, and emotional weight: Neo’s fighting to stop Smith from destroying everyone and everything. If he fails, then not only will every single human on earth die, but so will every single machine. That gives every moment where he falters or stumbles dramatic weight, because the consequences of failure are so high. Yet, even as the fight gives us awesome, god-like beings fighting (to one of the most incredible fight scores I’ve ever heard), it does something so many of these series-ending fights rarely do: it has the good guy fail. In what may be the biggest twists in the series, Neo loses the climactic fight. All of his powers, all of his skills, all of the gifts he’s been given as The One aren’t enough to save him.
When I first saw ‘Revolutions,’ I loved seeing Smith and Neo beating the tar of out of each other. But when Neo fell from the sky, and was subsequently beaten into the mud, I was shocked. That wasn’t supposed to happen! Neo’s the good guy, the savior of humanity! He couldn’t lose! I was gripped, trying to figure out on how on earth Neo could still win; after all, lots of protagonists get beaten to a pulp, yet still manage to achieve victory at the last second. But not here. Neo’s beaten so badly that he can barely stand, and then lets himself be absorbed and killed. I was stunned… and then (like so many other fans) spent the next few weeks trying to figure out what happened when all those Smiths exploded.
What makes the final battle of the Matrix saga so good is that it delivers not only spectacle, and emotional weight, but also subverts expectations by having Neo lose, gripping audiences as they try to figure how how he can turn things around in his favor. Then it subverts them even further by having Neo sacrifice himself to let the machines delete Smith through him, showing that a protagonist can lose a battle, but win a war in the process. There’s more than one way to victory, and it isn’t always the path of beating an opponent to a bloody pulp.
And so, with Neo’s sacrifice, we’ve finally finished looking at all the duels in the Matrix saga… Well, almost. Come back next week, where we’ll take a look at one last duel in the series, which may be the most satisfying… and one of the most unique.
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.’
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.’
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:
Seraph: You seek the Oracle.
Seraph: What is your name?
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.
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.’
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.
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.