The Matrix Resurrections
The Matrix Resurrections / Warner Bros.

Dr. Craig’s Martial Arts Movie Lounge

In the summer of 1998, I was one of four people from the American press corps invited to spend five days in Sydney, Australia, to interview the cast and special effects crew on the set of the secret film The Matrix (1999),with the promise to have exclusive interviews with the directors once the film was completed. I didn’t want to go because I’d be there during the middle of the 1998 World Cup in France, and I didn’t want to miss that.

Why me? Though already an established sci-fi magazine writer, I was the only sci-fi writer that understood Hong Kong’s kung fu cinema and spoke Chinese. So, when Warner Bros personally called and said that they specifically wanted me to interview fight director Yuen Woo-ping, I quipped, “When do I leave?”

After a mind-boggling trip, seeing the bullet time set up, interviewing the cast, visiting five major sets, and witnessing a days-worth of shooting of the subway fight between Neo and Agent Smith, where it was cool to bump into Chad Stahelski, Keanu’s double and a stuntman I met on a TV show that I did fight choreographer for, Spy Game, it struck me that the importance of the Matrix was acronymically hidden in the film’s title.

Matrix is the most important American made martial arts (MA) film ever, not because of the action but how Woo-ping got the job and the implications behind it. The Wachowskis first choice was Hong Kong’s father of wire-fu, Ching Siu-ting, but he turned them down because he felt they disrespected him. Second choice Corey Yuen declined because he was busy with other projects. Although third option Woo-ping was leery about it, because he was Hong Kong’s fight director patriarch, if he said no, his industry would lose face. Yet he had a sure-fire way of getting out of it…asking the Wachowskis for three things he knew they’d never agree to.

He first requested an inordinate amount of money for him and his fight crew; he got it. He next wanted complete control of the fights; he got that too. He knew the third critical demand would never happen, to have the main actors undergo intense MA training for three months so they could do their own fights. Woo-ping figured the actors would never go for it, thinking they’d prefer making another film during the said 3-month period.

After Matrix, training non-MA actors to do their own fights became standard practice, so when American audiences saw actors doing their own fights, it added a whole new dimension and sense of authenticity to the action. We have Woo-ping to thank for this non-intentional and decisive step in the successful evolution of American made MA films, to where now Shang-Chi is as good as any other MA film shot in cinema history.

So, what was the relevance of Matrix acronymically hidden in the film’s title? MA-trix. At the end of the day, if the MA-trickery sucked, the film would not have had the same influence and impact on cinema history. Most reviews back in 1999 were wowed by the MA-tricks that coolly blended in with at the time, unique, cutting-edge special effects, of which doing the bullet time effect required the most cutting, if you know what I mean.

To quote the famous American radio broadcaster, Paul Harvey, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

Every film should be an art of expression and creation and do it deftly. Regardless of how folks felt abused by Matrix: Reloaded and Matrix: Revolution (both 2003), my interests lay in the creative ways the martial action was expressed, which included actors’ martial performances, fight choreography and how the fights were shot. Based on what it took the Wachowskis to get Woo-ping attached, that showed me how dedicated they were to their franchise’s martial artsy vision where fights throughout the trilogy were more unique than the previous.

MA-Trix Resurrections (aka Resurrections) feels more like a mind-damaged John Wick, quasi-sci-fi action flick where we are introduced to a team of new characters who are working with Thomas (Tom) Anderson (Keanu Reeves) on developing a revamped game based on the Matrix trilogy produced by Warner Brothers (product placement to the nth degree). Since there’s a pet cat character in Resurrections, I was half-expecting a joke about how John, i.e., Tom (aka Neo), is re-entering the new game to avenge the death of a cat.

We soon realize that a new threat has moved from being a distant relevance to an encompassing jeopardy for the evolving battleground that relies on Tom again choosing between the blue and red pill and the consequences that arise from his choice…resurrecting or destroying the reverence of the new-age escapers who hero-worship Neo and want him to reunite with Trinity for another leaping MA-trix showdown. Though the game’s A.I. has improved, its E.I (emotional intelligence) hasn’t, and that becomes the glitch in the code, which could prove to be the ultimate weakness of Agent Smith and his cohorts inside and outside the game.

The Matrix

The Matrix Resurrections / Warner Bros.

In Matrix’s Neo vs Morpheus duel, Neo learned lots of kung fu styles giving the choreographers an unlimited arsenal of differing skills to work with, which were clearly revealed in Reloaded’s Merovingian’s battle that also used many kung fu weapons and the Neo vs Smith clones insanely pugilistic fight that rivalled Woo-ping’s Hong Kong resume. For the fourth bite of the Matrix martial cherry, my expectations were numbingly high.

Three minutes into Resurrections, two short Trinity combat sequences were shot in low light, using close camera angles with 1-2 techniques per shot and MTV editing to give a sense of speed while trying to hide the awkward choreo. Yet the weaknesses were as obvious as a fish swimming through water and hitting a wall that made me say, “Dam, the choreo lacked the usual conviction and quality touch associated with the MA-Trixaura.” One bit had Trinity running along a wall parallel to the ground, then pushing of the wall into a flying side kick. Rather than pull back into wide angle so we can see the kicks grace, it instead cuts to a close shot of a dangling foot in the air, hitting the baddie’s chest with its toes and not the bottom of the whole foot. Had the fruit turned rotten?

Yet 40-minutes later, a whimsical glimmer of hope as Neo and new allies are bee-ing attacked on a train by Matrix normal inhabitants changing into a swarm of mindless drone bots. It’s a zombie extravaganza bout from Train to Busan (2016), which isn’t so much a martial melee than a let’s get the hell out of here panic attack.

Moments later, its Neo vs Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who’s wearing an oversized Buddhist priest robe, in the I know kung fu II fray. Shorter than the beauteous Laurence Fishburne version, the new sparring lesson is void of kung fu, lacks mesmerizing poses, is missing wonderous wide-angle floating slo-mo visuals and elongated martial combinations shot with wandering camera coverage. Yet the robe is a nice touch to create a different visual look from the original. This lesson’s point for Neo is to rediscover his power surge striking ability (in real kung fu, it’s called a fa jing). Lookout Marvel, Neo is b-a-a-a-ack, and this time it’s personal.

The Matrix Resurrections

The Matrix Resurrections / Warner Bros.

At the hour and 25-minute mark of Resurrections, the final six-minute martial fight scene combines the Reloaded Merovingian kung fu weapon clash with a new Neo vs Agent Smith fracas yet by doing so, both showdowns were diluted. The Merovingian Exiles use some simple weapons and though Neo begins the bash, Morpheus, new character Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and a few others pick up the reigns but it doesn’t pour.

The camera choreography is neither slick nor aesthetic as the Merovingian fight uses dark tight shots making each clip shadowy, where the slow minimal choreography is edited into a series of short 2-3 moves for each of the various fighters, using earthquake cam where basically everyone fights the same way. There’s no typical MA-Trix, intricate weapon wielding, showing exquisite quips of combat, as it’s rather run of the mill stuff that ignores the amazing monopoly of kung fu weaponry and effervescent visuals that made MA-Trix what it was.

The Neo-Smith fight is more about chiding dialogue as the combat digresses into flail and crash choreo where both use energy surge punches to bash each other backwards in slo-mo into or through solid cement objects to reveal how powerful the warriors are hitting each other. There are no extended one-take exchanges, which Wick has become famous for, where those fights were about art, but with Neo, the artistry is gone.

From here on, the action enters uber FX mode as Neo and Trinity (Carrie Ann-Moss) fight to save humanity, with Marvel hero aplomb skills. About that cherry? One might say that compared to all the original trilogy fights, Resurrections didn’t use a passion fruit, thus making the MA-Trix’sinherent savoir faire now being not everywhere.

Though Resurrections only had a few MA-Trix quality moments, I enjoyed the film and was satisfied with the ending. Yet I have plenty of question marks about why director Lana Wachowski chose to lose the MA-Trix spirit. She could have prevented the beautifully colored cracked stained glass from shattering with one simple passionate move…hire Chad Stahelski and grant him the same honor the Wachowskis gave his mentor, Yuen Woo-ping.

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