As Churchill almost said: never in the field of contemporary cinema has so much [money] been given for so few [facial expressions].
Ah, Keanu. It’s easy now to forget just how big a deal The Matrix was when it came out: the sharp outfits, the blistering special effects, the quasi-mystical plot, the enigmatic director brothers.
The movie was a phenomenon so huge even Keanu’s balsa-wood presence couldn’t sink it. And when it emerged the boy’s profit-share deal meant he’d made £56 million for sleep-walking his way through a few dozen scenes of wonky dialogue and indifferent kung fu, that – if anything – only seemed even more impressive.
The plot, while bonkers, certainly has ambition. It suggests the real world is a ravaged post-apocalyptic wasteland, where dastardly machines live off the electrochemical energy of cocooned and comatose humans. The world we think we live in is actually just an artificial reality – a jumped up computer game – known as the Matrix.
Keanu plays a computer hacker (Neo Anderson) recruited by a tiny band of rebels who know the truth and are fighting to overthrow the evil robots. They are led by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who thinks Neo may be the mystical ‘one’ prophesised to save them all. Like, woah dude.
The rebels ‘wake’ Keanu from his gloopy cocoon and reveal to him the real future world, a desolate rockscape with no signs of human life. Except presumably a branch of All Saints, going by the trendily distressed clothes they all seem to wear.
Morpheus puts Neo through a vigorous training regime, involving lots of gun-play, leaping tall buildings and implausibly-fast kung fu. These all occur within a virtual computer programme where participants appear as idealised versions of themselves. (Keanu’s ‘real’ shaved head, for example, is replaced by his lustrous bouffant). All of which begs the question: why has Laurence still got a big gut sticking out his karate pyjamas?
It’s fascinating to trace the Fishburne weight trajectory throughout his cinematic career. The ripped, powerful father figure of Boyz in the Hood has started to swell out impressively by this movie, giving Big Lol’s participation in action scenes a slightly strained effect.
Inevitably, as the Matrix franchise took off and the bucks flew in, he just got bigger. By Matrix: Revolutions, only Steven Seagal could hold a candle to him in the comedy-fat-man-doing-kung-fu stakes, and edits of the fight ‘action’ became so rapid epileptics were reputedly scared to step into the auditorium.
Incidentally, Big Laurence has a priceless cameo in the recent Predators revamp, playing a veteran who’s been hiding from the monsters for months in a disused spaceship. When asked how he’s survived Big Lol, chins swinging and belly straining at a tent-like hessian smock, stirs a watery-looking soup and replies: ‘On whatever scraps I can find.’ (Deliciously, the Schwarznegger hero figure in this scene is Adrien Brody, an actor who presumably had to ‘bulk up’ for his turn as a WW2 ghetto inmate in The Pianist.)
Still, there’s much to love in this film. The baddies are great – all cynicism, shades and sharp suits – and chief villain Agent Smith’s refrain (‘Miss-ter Ain-der-sunn...’) is still good fun. There’s loads of inventive visual trickery and the trademark Matrix special effect (someone jumps in the air, then the camera travels round them in slo-mo) was a real game-changer.
Despite – possibly because of – its earnest ridiculousness, The Matrix is stomping good fun. And the fact that the two sequels were, and let’s not mince words here, arse-clenchingly bad doesn’t detract from the genuine inventiveness on display in this first outing.
Not bad. Three agents have Morpheus chained to a chair in a skyscraper, when Keanu pops up in an open-sided helicopter and empties a howitzer into the room. Big Lol jumps from the building and the chopper swings away, Keanu dangling from a rope with one hand and holding onto his mentor with the other.
The chopper is piloted by Trinity (poor Carrie Ann Moss who was shortly to find that, like the matrix itself, her acting career didn’t really exist). As she veers off, Agent Smith holes the fuel tank and helicopter mayhem looks inevitable.
But wait! Keanu lands himself and Morpheus safely onto a skyscraper roof then, holding the rope, actually slows the descent of the chopper. Meanwhile, Trinity detaches the other end of the rope and, as the the faltering machine finally hits a building, swings away from the explosion. Huzzah!
Does the passenger survive?
Trinity does indeed climb to safety and into Keanu’s waiting ‘guns’. It’s a fine example of the infrequently seen helicopter-explosion-survival-scenario.
It’s all done rather well. When the chopper first hits the skyscraper, the building itself morphs and semi-envelops it – as a reminder we’re in the matrix – which is a nice touch. There’s also a neat overhead shot of the rotor blade actually buckling against the building in slo-mo and a great image of Trinity swinging towards the camera as the chopper explodes behind her.
The one obvious letdown is asking us to believe that Neo, for all his power, would be able to hold on to Laurence Fishburne with one hand. Or two, for that matter.
‘Woah.’ You’ll never guess who said that.
Famously, Keanu made even more squazillions for the lamentable Reload and Revolutions – reputedly over £200 million – despite looking barely conscious for much of them. In terms of actual work input, he’s perhaps the only professional in recent memory to make Fred Goodwin look good value for money.
Review by: Chopper
Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast review of The Matrix on Podomatic, iTunes, YourListen or Stitcher.