Shockingly, it has been a whole decade since we were first struck by the phenomenon that is The Matrix. Two other action trilogies - also heavy on the martial arts - had already started up with their first instalments: Bourne and Blade, but The Matrix totally blew everyone away. That opening scene - the shiny black leather-clad Trinity, jumping in the air as the camera slowed time and spun 180 degrees about her form, poised in mid-air, ready to kick somebody across the room. Wow. It really was a landmark event, a piece of cinematic history. Over two hours later - having seen the likes of Keanu Reeves and Larry Fishburne face off against a bunch of almost indestructible 'suits', with bullet-time allowing us to watch them dodge bullets and with a pseudo-philosophical back-story to the sci-fi setting - it became an instant modern classic. Tremendously quotable, endlessly cool, pulling punters in for repeat viewings and shifting the whole benchmark for action movies from that day, The Matrix was a massive success, prompting the brothers behind the whole creation to film back-to-back sequels to make the movie into a trilogy. However, neither the sequels, nor any other action movies since, have achieved the near-perfection of this 1999 hit. Still, what is The Matrix?
Purported underground hacker Neo is on the trail of the infamous cyber-criminal Morpheus to ask that very question, but a series of seemingly orchestrated events send him on a very different journey, leaving him at the mercy of some unrelenting Government Agents who want him to help them track Morpheus. Kidnapped by the 'Resistance' and given the option to go back to his sheep-like 'programmed' existence or be shown the truth - from which he will never be able to return - he chooses the latter and finds that his eventful journey has only just begun. The flimsy veil covering the cleverly contrived world around him drops and he finds that the truth is that the world has been conquered by machines, who won a devastating war with the humans some decades ago, one which left the sky scorched so that the sun will never shine through again and which left the machines harvesting energy from humans that they have 'grown' in chambers, and whose psyches have been locked in 'The Matrix' to keep them all happy. Sounds complicated? Well, it's not actually that bad, the plot evolving at an accessible pace, allowing you to process the huge world-encompassing back-story. What we basically have are our team of resistance fighters, led by Morpheus - the brain and spirit behind the group - seeking to destroy the Matrix and free the few remaining humans. Morpheus believes that there is a single being - 'The One' - who will overcome the power of the Matrix and free all the trapped minds within. He believes that this person is Neo.
The first Matrix film could have easily been left along and stood as a masterpiece in cinematic history, a really ground-breaking action flick, surpassing previous effects and concepts with its grand ideas and superior visualisation. It charted your standard Rocky-style underdog tale, with an unsuspecting novice being told that he has a 'destiny', rebelling against it then finally accepting his fate, undergoing intensive training which nearly breaks him, before finally confronting his true enemy and having to overcome all odds to defeat him. It has been done before, but somehow the backdrop of this overwhelming Matrix scenario made it seem fresh and new, and the way in which it was brought to life was unique, with jaw-dropping adrenaline-pumping action sequences, and expertly choreographed martial arts - not from martial artists posing as actors but actually by big name stars themselves.
Unfortunately what was essentially near-perfect was brought down somewhat by the films that were to follow. Rather than build on the original story and surpass the action and drama with a darker, more powerful sequel (as the Bourne movies did), The Matrix was really let down by its sequels. Reloaded gave us so much ludicrous pseudo-philosophical posturing - all bark but no bite - and felt like it had no real significance, or consequence, with frivolous CG fight sequences and too much meaningless - and pretentious - dialogue. It promised so much, and yet the final movie, Revolutions, simply did not deliver the ending that we wanted given all that had come before. Worse still, it sapped some of the potency that the original instalment had - and would have retained had it been left alone. A singularity, a seminal movie, marred by being packaged within a lacklustre and somewhat disappointing trilogy.
Ignoring Keanu Reeves' infamous diet and low-body-fat physique for the later instalments, The Matrix showcased him as a slender, almost gaunt shadow of his former surfer-dude-come-Speed-star-self. And his limited acting abilities almost made him perfect for the naive trainee who is tutored by Lawrence Fishburne's somewhat pompous, but nonetheless powerful leader Morpheus. Reeves had been doing some pretty average movies after his success with a bomb on a bus, with Chain Reaction, Johnny Mnemonic and A Walk In the Clouds all marking mediocre movies that nobody really remembers. The Matrix catapulted him back into the limelight, although now he was a true action hero, reborn complete with knowledge of kung fu. Fishburne too had been getting pretty average roles, and it was not until his global success and fame as Morpheus that he finally got to pick some choice parts, before being chosen as William Petersen's replacement on CSI. Neither of them were individuals who you would really expect to provide us with one of the best dojo-set fights ever filmed, and yet here they were kicking the hell out of each other with some serious style. Joining them we have Carrie-Anne Moss, the kick-ass heroine Trinity who gave us that opening time-freezing moment. She has since disappeared into insignificance, and perhaps left us with a remarkably vulgar new fashion culture of women wearing wet-look leggings. Then there's Hugo Weaving, who plays the trilogy's main villain, Agent Smith, a suit-and-sunglasses-wearing FBI Agent lookalike who plagues Morpheus and Neo with his seeming indestructibility. Weaving's perhaps most famous for his voice now, getting parts that rely more on that than anything else (in V for Vendetta, where we never see his face behind the mask, or in Transformers, voicing Megatron). It was a memorable cast, not because of the big names involved (scientologist dopes Tom Cruise and Will Smith could have landed these roles, remember) but because of the perfect casting of unlikely heroes and villains.
Then we have the action - most notably the bullet-time effects that were first showcased here. Used sparingly - but effectively - it made this first movie extremely memorable, and couple that with some bone-jarring fight sequences and truly insane shootouts (if you ask anyone whether they have seen 'the lobby scene' they are likely to know exactly what you are talking about) this was the kind of movie that just got played on repeat. Get home drunk - stick on The Matrix. Want a good fight scene - stick on The Matrix. Want to unwind - stick on The Matrix. Coupling the action with the thumping soundtrack and cutting edge effects left us with one of the biggest action hits of all time. And if we can just forgive it for bearing the two wayward children that were Reloaded and Revolutions, The Matrix may actually be remembered for the outstanding movie that it is.
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