The Best Background Characters: The Backflipping Goon

Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.

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The Movie:

‘The Matrix Revolutions’

The Character:

A goon with radical backflipping skills.

The Scene:

(The guy in question appears at 2:03)

Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight

You’ve probably heard the saying, ‘Don’t bring a gun to a knife fight.’ Another equal saying should be, ‘Don’t expect aerobatics to save you in a gun fight.’

The goon in this scene distinguishes himself when, after running out of ammo for his pistols, decides that the best course of action is to do backflips across the room. Then he’s shot and dies, complete with a ‘you failed!’ music cue on the soundtrack.

Much like one of Snoke’s guards, this goon stands out because his actions are so nonsenscial. Tactical backflips may look cool, but it’d have been more effective to take cover behind a pillar and survive to keep fighting. But with his sacrifice, Backflip Goon provides a valuable lesson to fighters in fiction: Unless you’re in a comedy where exaggerated actions are used for humorous effect, staying alive in a fight is more important than showing off how acrobatic you are.

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 6

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 three different versions 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.

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 5

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

*Superpowers

*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 that 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.