The Matrix (1999, The Wachowskis)

The Matrix starts kicking ass in the second half. The first act clunks along, introducing both Keanu Reeves’s plot and then the Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne one. The second act makes a lot of promises and stumbles delivering on them. There’s this big fight scene between Reeves and Fishburne, and instead of accelerating the film’s momentum, it intentionally stalls it out again.

The film opens with Moss on the run from the cops and the Men in Black—a phenomenal Hugo Weaving and the lackluster Paul Goddard and Robert Taylor. She’s a cyberpunk hacker who can leap (between) medium-sized buildings in a single bound. Right after Moss’s fantastical introduction, Matrix switches into mundane with Reeves’s white-collar computer programmer. After he gets a prescient message on his computer screen, Reeves goes out clubbing and meets Moss, only to wake up late the following day. At work, he gets a special delivery—a cell phone. It rings, Fishburne calling to warn him Weaver is after him.

Now, if Reeves listens to Fishburne in this scene, the movie will get to the second act faster, so of course, he doesn’t and instead gets arrested. It’s okay, as it allows for the first great scene from Weaver in the film. But then immediately following, Moss comes along (with friends who aren’t going to matter other than looking cool) to rescue Reeves. Not from Weaver, but from reality. Or what he thinks is reality.

Because the actual reality is humanity is being used as batteries for the machines who have taken over the planet. Moss, Fishburne, and the aforementioned indistinct but cool pals (save Joe Pantoliano, who’s intentionally not cool but also very distinct) are freedom fighters who live in the real world—one suffering an endless nuclear winter thanks to the war of the machines—and try to fight the computers, with the fake reality (The Matrix) their battlefield.

And Fishburne’s absolutely positive Reeves is their John Connor. Just no one else is sure. Especially not Reeves, who isn’t thrilled to find out his entire life’s not just a lie but also fake. Even if it does mean he can learn kung fu as fast as it can be uploaded onto his brain via Sony MiniDisc.

The biggest problem with the first half of The Matrix is the sluggish plotting, which keeps Moss in the background so she can save a surprise for later, as well as the tell then show then tell some more style of storytelling. But also the lack of character development for the indistinct but cool pals. The only ones who get anything to do are Pantoliano, who’s disgruntled, and then tech guy Marcus Chong. Chong can’t go into the Matrix because he’s a regular human born out in the post-apocalyptic real world, so instead, he operates the computers to send the other people back in. Chong’s bad. He’s not the worst performance—I mean, he’s close, but he’s much better than Goddard and Tylor—but he’s got terrible timing and bad writing. He’s a charisma vacuum in a part utterly dependent on it.

Once Reeves heads back into the Matrix as one of Fishburne’s team, and they stop promising to do something great and start doing some great things, the film takes off. Starting with Reeves going to visit Gloria Foster. Foster’s the fortune-teller who’s going to suss out whether or not Fishburne found the right guy to save the world.

While The Matrix’s most outstanding achievement is probably its technicals, there’s also something really cool in how the people saving the future are Black (Fishburne and Foster). It just feels right. And special. The film even seems aware of it, with Fishburne alluding towards it during a fistfight with Smith.

The film’s second half is a continual action sequence, primarily set in the Matrix where Reeves, Moss, and Fishburne can do kung fu and shoot guns. The gun stuff gets a little tiresome, but it’s more technically impressive than the kung fu. The best action involves a helicopter rescue sequence; directors Wachowski do their best work on that one, with some excellent editing from Zach Staenberg. The lengthy kung fu fights are all slowed down for emphasis, which makes them less visually impressive, but does allow time to focus on the characters’ experience of the fights, whether it’s Reeves starting to think he actually might be the white savior Fishburne’s looking for, or Weaver coming to a similar conclusion. Good for Reeves, bad for Weaver.

Weaver’s best scene in the movie isn’t opposite Reeves, but Fishburne. Reeves is just Weaver’s fisticuffs nemesis, while Fishburne’s the one he can talk to about two levels of artificial life.

Great music from Don Davis, great photography from Bill Pope. The Wachowskis’ direction of actors isn’t always the best—especially in the first half—but their approach pays off for the actors it needs to pay off for (i.e., Moss). Oddly, they direct Reeves better outside the Matrix scenes than inside, which is an anomaly. Though Reeves probably plays worse inside the Matrix than out because of that super-clunky first act and then the tedious hero’s journey in the second.

Fishburne’s great, Weaver’s great, Pantoliano’s great. Foster. Foster’s really great. If it weren’t for Weaver’s scenes getting better (until they don’t), Foster would be the best performance with just her one scene. But it’s Weaver.

Moss and Reeves are excellent together, which is the point, even if it takes a while. And relies on third act reveals to inform previous scenes.

Reeves is a good lead. He’s best reacting to other people, just so long as they’re strong enough to hold the scenes.

The Wachowskis’ script has some problems, and they can’t always make the obviousness work—then other times sail through it—but the pacing is fantastic. The direction’s usually exceptional.

There are a handful of movie homages. Star Wars and Terminator are the most obvious, plus whatever the wire fu pictures they’re referencing, and there’s eventually a nice Western nod.

Matrix is good. and they can’t always make the obviousness work—then other times sail through it—but the pacing is fantastic. The direction’s usually exceptional.

There are a handful of movie homages. Star Wars and Terminator are the most obvious, plus whatever the wire fu pictures they’re referencing, and there’s eventually a nice Western nod.

Matrix is good.

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