The Matrix (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #60

Believe the unbelievable

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 136 minutes
BBFC: 15 (cut, 1999) | 15 (uncut, 2006)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 31st March 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 11th June 1999
First Seen: VHS, 2000

Stars
Keanu Reeves (Speed, John Wick)
Laurence Fishburne (Event Horizon, Predators)
Carrie-Anne Moss (Sabotage, Memento)
Hugo Weaving (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Lord of the Rings)
Joe Pantoliano (Bound, Memento)

Directors
The Wachowski Brothers (Bound, Speed Racer)

Screenwriters
The Wachowski Brothers (V for Vendetta, Jupiter Ascending)

The Story
Thomas Anderson, aka hacker Neo, is searching for answers to questions he doesn’t know. This search brings him into contact with Morpheus, a mysterious individual who claims to show Neo the ‘real world’ — something the powerful Agents are keen to prevent…

Our Hero
By day, Thomas Anderson is an office drone computer programmer. By night, he’s renowned hacker Neo. After he meets Morpheus and gets some of the answers he’s been seeking, it turns out he may be something greater…

Our Villains
The forces of the controlling machines are represented by Men in Black-style suit-wearing sunglass-sporting agents, the foremost of whom is Agent Smith. I don’t know about you, but I can’t read about / hear of / meet anyone called Anderson without hearing Hugo Weaving’s syllable-emphasising delivery of “Mr Anderson”.

Best Supporting Character
Hardened PVC-and-leather-clad warrior Trinity — a kick-ass female action heroine 17 years ago, while we still seem to be desperately hunting for them today.

Memorable Quote
“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” — Morpheus

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“There is no spoon.” — Spoon boy

Memorable Scene
Neo + Agent + rooftop + super-slow-motion + impossible leaning-over-backwards-ness = one of the most iconic scenes in the movies.

Technical Wizardry
Hong Kong cinema has been using wirework to create kung fu action scenes for decades, but The Matrix brought it to the Western mainstream. The fights were choreographed by legendary action choreographer/director Yuen Woo-ping (Drunken Master, Once Upon a Time in China, Iron Monkey, etc).

Truly Special Effect
The much imitated and parodied bullet-time effect, where the action stops and rotates around the static scene before continuing. It was mind-blowing at the time, before it became overdone. And though it looked impressive, it was achieved with strikingly obvious simplicity: a rig of still cameras arranged around the subject, with a film camera at either end.

Making of
The character of Switch was originally intended to be played by two actors, an androgynous male in the real world and an androgynous female in the Matrix, hence the character’s name. According to IMDb, Warner Bros “refined” the idea (one wonders if “vetoed” might be a more accurate word), and Belinda McClory played the role in both locations. Maybe this signifies something, maybe it doesn’t, but given that both Wachowski siblings have since come out as transgender, it seemed a particularly interesting point.

Next time…
Laurence Fishburne committed himself to two sequels before he even read the scripts. “Of course you would,” thought everyone who’d seen The Matrix. Then they came out. As well as the two films, there was: a series of anime shorts; a computer game so ‘significant’ that scenes from it are included on the film trilogy’s DVD/Blu-ray release; and an MMORPG that ended in 2009. Rumours persist of more in the future.

Awards
4 Oscars (Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects)
2 BAFTAs (Sound, Visual Effects)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Production Design, Editing)
2 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Director)
7 Saturn nominations (Actor (Keanu Reeves), Actress (Carrie-Anne Moss), Supporting Actor (Laurence Fishburne), Writer, Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects (it lost to The Phantom Menace!))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (it lost to Galaxy Quest)

What the Critics Said
“In addition to resembling both in concept and content the worthwhile Dark City, there’s not much more to it than ideas about the subjectivity of reality reworked from Descartes, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson and channeled into an operatic science-fiction metaphor about non-conformity (and drug use). But the Wachowskis do it so playfully well, keeping The Matrix’s potentially confusing plot intelligible, intelligent, and suspenseful, that it doesn’t matter. As far as sheer spectacle goes, it’s the most exciting thing to come along in quite a while. Where other films are done in by the freedom offered by computer effects, The Matrix integrates them beautifully” — Keith Phipps, A.V. Club

Score: 87%

What the Public Say
“The degrees to which The Matrix changed our cinematic landscape are inescapable. This is one of those rare cultural landmarks that overcame its cult status and truly became a part of our shared existence. It helps that The Matrix is a bit of a whole bunch of sci-fi, cyberpunk and dystopic fiction blended together with classic Hong Kong action film elements. Not bad for a film that stole much of Dark City’s thunder.” — The Hi-Fi Celluloid Monster

Verdict

There are some movies where their significance almost outstrips the ability to judge them independently — Citizen Kane, for the most obvious example. I don’t know if The Matrix now appears that way to newcomers, but it could, because it’s hard to understate the impact it had on action/sci-fi movies (and other media) for the next decade or more. But I haven’t included films in this list just for the impact they had: The Matrix is an exciting, thought-provoking, and innovative sci-fi-actioner. Unsurprisingly, all the reasons it was so influential are the reasons it’s so good.

#61 will be… future crime.

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The Grandmaster (2013)

aka Yi dai zong shi

2015 #160
Wong Kar Wai | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong & China / Mandarin & Cantonese | 15 / PG-13

As a Western viewer, if you know anything about Ip Man beyond “he’s the chap who trained Bruce Lee”, it’s probably thanks to the pair of eponymous biopics starring Donnie Yen (soon to become a trilogy). Heck, if you know that much there’s a fair chance it’s due to those films. This take on the man, directed and co-written by Wong Kar Wai and starring Tony Leung as Ip, is tonally very different.

Some of the facts remain the same, naturally: Ip is a master of Wing Chung in Foshan, China, until the Japanese occupation ruins everyone’s lives. Post-war, he moves to Hong Kong and sets up a school there. Concurrently, there’s something about being the grandmaster of martial arts in all of China, or somesuch. When the previous incumbent is murdered by his disciple, the old man’s daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), has revenge in mind.

The Grandmaster is very much more an arthouse version of the story than the Ip Mans’ accessible action-movie stylistics, with elliptical storytelling and a carefully-measured pace, even in the action sequences. I’ve seen at least one review criticise Wong for leaning too heavily into ‘genre’ pictures — I guess that critic doesn’t actually watch too many genre pictures, because a good number of genre fans criticise this for being too arty. It is more “arty” than “genre”, even given its inclusion of numerous fantastic fight scenes. The duels are stunning, though pure adrenaline-junkie viewers seem to find even those a disappointment. Well, they’re wrong.

It helps that it’s gorgeously shot. Ultra-crisp blue-black rain-soaked night time duels; rich golden hues in pre-occupation Foshan; cold bright-white snowy landscapes; a train platform fight that’s almost sepia-like. Between the photography and the ever-excellent action choreography of Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Kill Bill, et al), the film is immensely satisfying on a visual level.

One factor that may — or, as we will see, may not — have an effect on how the film fares beyond the purely visual is that there are at least three different cuts: a 130-minute original cut, a 122-minute international cut, and the 108-minute version released in the US by the Weinsten Company. “Ah,” you might think, “yet another Weinstein hack job.” Well, Wong himself says otherwise:

As a filmmaker, let me say that the luxury of creating a new cut for U.S. audiences was the opportunity to reshape it into something different than what I began with — a chance one doesn’t always get as a director and an undertaking much more meaningful than simply making something shorter or longer. The original version of The Grandmaster is about 2 hours, 10 minutes. Why not 2 hours, 9 minutes or 2 hours, 11 minutes? To me, the structure of a movie is like a clock or a prized watch — it’s about precision and perfect balance.

We always knew that we wanted to have a U.S. version that was a bit tighter and that helped clarify the complex historical context of this particular era in Chinese history, focusing further on the journeys of Ip Man and Gong Er. While the previous version was more chronological, adding narration and captions to explain certain plot points gave us the freedom to bring more life to moments in the characters’ stories. I also aimed to enhance the audience’s understanding of the challenges faced between North and South, especially during the Japanese invasion.

Well, the narration and explanatory title cards are at times useful, but at others feel heavy-handed. I guess that’s the result of them being added retroactively as an explanatory device — if Wong had felt that information needed to be in the film throughout production, I’m sure it could’ve been better integrated into the storytelling.

However you look at it, the other Ip Man films are undoubtedly more palatable to a mainstream audience. Does that mean they’re worse? No. Better? Not necessarily. But I don’t think The Grandmaster is all it could’ve been. It seems to run out of story and lose its way as it gets towards the end. The focus shifts entirely to Gong Er, and it feels less clear what it’s meant to about as a whole film. It becomes a movie of great moments, and maybe even scenes, but an unsatisfying whole. But oh, the images…

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978)

aka Se ying diu sau

2014 #98
Yuen Woo-ping | 92 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese | 18 / PG*

Snake in the Eagle's ShadowJackie Chan’s breakout hit sees him as Chien Fu, the floor-scrubber-cum-punch-bag at a martial arts school where he bumps into Pai Cheng Tien (Yuen Siu Tien), one of the last two proponents of the Snake Fist style after its other students were murdered by their old enemies, the Eagle Claw clan. The old man trains Chan so he can overcome his bullying schoolmasters, while the Eagle Claw grand master (Hwang Jang Lee) hunts for his last remaining rival…

The first film from director Yuen Woo-ping (he went on to helm Jackie Chan’s other defining film, Drunken Master, later the same year, and is best known to us Westerners for his action choreography work on The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, and Kill Bill) presents quite a slight story, but that’s OK: we’re here for the action, and it delivers that in droves. There are more fights than you can shake a stick at; and not just minor skirmishes littered between two or three headline bouts: regular highly-choreographed duels make up the bulk of the running time. The skill on display is as high as you’d expect, and while I know nothing of the technicalities of martial arts, the speed and dexterity of the performers has to be admired.

There’s some of the comedy Chan would become known for, but it’s not outright comedic most of the time; more straight kung fu with a regularly-displayed wry edge. Those who prefer their action po-faced may still find it palatable, though the campiness of the era that has been much parodied since is present and correct.

Snake Fist styleAlso striking is the music score, a strange mix of weird, cheap, dated, electronic stuff… and yet, it’s so odd I kind of warmed to it. It’s all poached from elsewhere, which was apparently the way things were done in Hong Kong at the time. Stand-out tracks are Magic Fly by Space and Oxygene Part II by Jean Michel Jarre, though bits of famous scores are in there too, most recognisably (for me) You Only Live Twice. I don’t really know what this bizarre juke-box-esque system adds for the viewer, other than some spot-the-tune fun and an appreciable level of bizarreness.

Not the most “Jackie Chan” of Jackie Chan films, and dated in a way that will put some off, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is nonetheless good fun for those who like their action movies to be properly action-centric.

4 out of 5

* Seems unlikely, doesn’t it? But that’s what IMDb and filmRatings.com say. I suppose the US do have silly-lax views on violence in film… ^

Fist of Legend (1994)

aka Jing wu ying xiong

2008 #77
Gordon Chan | 99 mins | TV | 18 / R

Fist of LegendI found myself watching Fist of Legend unintentionally following this year’s Children in Need appeal. The significance of this piece of trivia is that I watched it on TV, which means I had to watch it dubbed. Apparently, “it is regarded as one of the best martial arts films of all time, and almost universally viewed as Jet Li’s best” (thank you Wikipedia), but the dub does its utmost to obscure this.

Putting the audio aside (for the moment), the film has a lot to recommend it — primarily, the fights. At 2am, after seven hours of near-solid TV watching, it was these that drew me in. I’m no expert on martial arts, but I do like a good fight (on film) and Fist of Legend serves up plenty of those. In fact, there’s approximately one every five minutes, an impressively high ratio that consciously — and very pleasingly — fulfills what you want from this kind of film. This quantity doesn’t seem to have damaged quality either: all are generally impressive, but there are some particularly good ideas floating about too, such as a long fight where both participants are blindfolded.

There’s a plot too, which includes a few surprisingly surprising twists and an interesting undercurrent of Japanese/Chinese racial tensions thanks to the setting (1937, during a Japanese occupation of Shanghai). This adds an extra level to what could otherwise be a stock revenge plot.

So, that just leaves the soundtrack. The English audio is at least as bad as you’d imagine, and a reminder — if one were needed — about why dubbing foreign language films is so hated. Whatever the qualities of the film itself, the clichéd dub script and flat voiceover performances, awkwardly delivered to fit the actor’s mouth movements, make the film look cheap and poorly done. On the bright side, the main villain has an amusingly gravelly “I am playing a villain!” voice.

If you can look past the rubbish dub (which I should imagine is even easier on DVD, what with turning it off), Fist of Legend is very enjoyable. However, with the action being the primary source of pleasure, those who don’t like martial arts movies may want to imagine a lower score.

4 out of 5