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The Matrix hacked Hollywood, upgrading American action with tricks from abroad

With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.

The Matrix (1999)

We’ve been seeing some weird shit happen in the world lately. Donald Trump, trailing badly in the polls and making an ass of himself for the entire election season, was somehow elected president. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series in game seven, in extra innings, after a ninth-inning rain delay. The Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 game lead and lost in the NBA Finals. The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in overtime after making a historic, unprecedented late-game comeback. The Oscars ended with a wild clusterfuck—one movie announced for Best Picture before someone rushed out to say that it was a mistake, that it was really supposed to go to another movie. Any one of those events would’ve been weird. Taken together, they’re enough to leave your head spinning. And as a result, a theory has been floating around online in recent months: We’re really programs, living in a computer simulation, and someone is fucking around with the algorithm.

I was all set to laugh that idea off until some troubling news emerged from Hollywood last month: Warner Bros. wants to reboot The Matrix. Despite the massive, overwhelming collective groan at that news, rumors have been flying around. Maybe it’ll be a prequel. Maybe it’ll have Michael B. Jordan as the younger version of Morpheus. Maybe they’re laying the ground for another whole series of Matrix movies. This shit was too much. Because the idea of rebooting The Matrix is the sort of thing that could only happen in the actual Matrix.

The Matrix, the original 1999 movie, was a glitch in the Matrix, a massive fluke of a blockbuster, a movie that should’ve never been allowed to exist that ended up grossing more money worldwide than any other movie that year. The Matrix was a big-budget studio sci-fi movie built around a brain-fucking philosophical premise, one that sent audiences scurrying out of multiplexes and back into malls wondering whether they were still breathing actual air, whether the blinking store lights around them were just designed to keep them docile. Its characters were barely characters; instead, they were stand-ins for ideas about the fundamental human struggle against mass control. And it introduced the idea that fights in Hollywood movies could be every bit the equal of the insanity coming out of Hong Kong, that American movie stars could and should be expected to spend months training in the art of wire-fu before cameras even rolled.

The movie’s bugged-out premise, it turned out, was vague and fluid enough that just about anyone could find something in it to use, that it could prop up existing belief systems just as easily as it undermined them. Case in point: The internet shitbags of the men’s rights movement have grabbed the movie and run with it, taking the red pill/blue pill scene as a metaphor for their own paranoid visions of a massive, sweeping feminist conspiracy. At the same time, there’s compelling evidence that the whole movie is about gender dysphoria; after all, the two Wachowski siblings who directed the movie came out as transgender years later. The Matrix can’t be both a movie about the men’s rights movement and about trans identity, but it resonated with enough people that it’s taken on both of those meanings, and plenty more besides.

The movie wasn’t a completely original vision or anything. Ideas about reality as a construct had been floating around, in science fiction and elsewhere, for decades. The whole idea that you’re actually a special person, one who’s been oppressed by a world that doesn’t understand your brilliance, is one of the great fictional tropes. The characters in the movie keep making Lewis Carroll references, but it’s not just Wonderland; it’s also Narnia, Hogwarts, the X-Mansion.

More directly, the legendary comic writer Grant Morrison has complained that the movie ripped off his series The Invisibles, and it also took obvious influence from the original anime Ghost In The Shell. The Wachowskis paid direct homage to French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in the movie; Keanu Reeves hid computer discs in a hollowed-out copy of one of his books. A year before The Matrix, the movie Dark City had drawn on similar aesthetics to play around with similar ideas. But all those things combined didn’t blow minds the way The Matrix did in just its first week of release. It’s hard to overstate what an exciting moviegoing experience The Matrix was. The trailers were cool, so people went in blind, with no idea what to expect. And we walked out dazed and shaken and energized. It was really something.

In my lifetime, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piece of pop philosophy that resonated the way The Matrix did. While the movie was still in theaters, I had semiotics professors assigning papers on it. But as fun as the movie’s central headfuck was, it was able to conquer our collective brain, in good part because it was an absolutely, ferociously badass action movie. The bullet-time effect became an instant joke, but that opening action scene, with Trinity killing the shit out of a whole platoon of cops, was quick and brutal and dazzling in ways that nobody had ever seen in a Hollywood studio action movie. And while the movie made us wait almost another hour for its real fight-scene fireworks to kick in, they turned out to be something truly amazing.

The sheer work put into the movie’s fighting was just breathtaking. The Wachowskis famously hired Yuen Woo-ping, the master Hong Kong fight choreographer, mostly because of his work on the Jet Li classic Fist Of Legend. And Yuen put the movie’s stars through the wringer, forcing them to train rigorously and even causing some injuries. Big actors had just never gone that hard before. And the movie even built in a reason for Yuen to go nuts with the wire-fu effects that had made so many Hong Kong movies look weird and dreamlike: In this world, those who were enlightened enough could bend the laws of physics—could even do something like flying—so some unnatural hang time was nothing. And those rules also helped explain why Neo and Trinity could walk away from the incredible John Woo-style office-lobby shoot-out without multiple bullet wounds.

Still, even with those rules bending, the fights in The Matrix looked like fights. One of my tests for whether a movie is an action movie is the punch test. Is there a reasonable threat that somebody is going to get punched in the face? And if that punch does connect, does it look like it hurts? I won’t be covering too many ’00s superhero movies in this column, mostly because I think that that genre split off from action movies and became its own thing, a thing where punches don’t matter. The Matrix, on the other hand, put all this energy into establishing that its fights take place in a virtual dreamworld, and those punches still make us wince.

More than any movie before or since, The Matrix made Keanu Reeves part of the action-star pantheon. Reeves, who’d been enough of a cowboy to do stunt work in Point Break and Speed, took things to a new level, setting new standards in Hollywood action-star diligence. And more importantly, he didn’t just give an athletic performance; he meant it. Reeves’ kung-fu poses never looked goofy; he sold them through commitment and sincerity. And the dazed sweetness that had always been his movie-star calling card also showed through. Reeves always used to get shit for being a terrible actor, but he sold bewilderment like nobody else. When he muttered “whoa” at the sight of Morpheus taking to the air, he was speaking for the audience. And you won’t find too many iconic badass moments more iconic than the one in the subway station, when he decides not to run from Agent Smith and turns to fight him instead.

The Matrix was a one-off, which is one of the reasons that the idea of a potential reboot is so infuriating. In some ways, it’s the Pearl Jam of action movies: the great thing that inspired a million shitty imitators. Series like the Underworld or Resident Evil movies tried to run with the movie’s aesthetic without ever approaching its gravitas. We’re still sometimes supposed to think characters are cool for wearing trench coats and sunglasses, even though that look was almost dated by the time The Matrix came out. Even the Wachowskis couldn’t replicate the magic; they got completely lost in the weeds with the movie’s two confounding, unsatisfying sequels. Almost everything about The Matrix became a cliché right away. If the original movie itself weren’t so great, you could almost accuse it of being bad for action cinema.

Almost. Years later, it’s pretty clear that the movie mostly led to great things. Hollywood action movies—the ones that aspired to be good, anyway—suddenly had to pay attention to things like fight choreography. Yuen Woo-ping became one of the great visionaries of ’00s action movies, working on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill and Cradle 2 The Grave. (Shut up, I love Cradle 2 The Grave.) All these years later, the people involved in the nuts-and-bolts action work of The Matrix are still doing amazing things. Reeves’ Matrix stuntman David Leitch went on to direct Reeves in John Wick and produce John Wick: Chapter 2. And Reeves took Tiger Chen, an assistant fight choreographer from The Matrix, and turned him into an action star by directing him in the great 2013 underground-fighting movie Man Of Tai Chi. When I saw John Wick 2, the audience buzzed audibly when Reeves came face-to-face, once again, with the older, heavier Laurence Fishburne. Eighteen years later, the memory of The Matrix still has that power.

Other notable 1999 action movies: Runner-up honors for the year go to the Korean spy melodrama Shiri, about a North Korean spy infiltrating South Korean law enforcement but falling in love with a cop. The movie itself is effective enough, a fun, if overblown, piece of Michael Bay-style silliness. But Shiri is historically important for other reasons. In its day, it was the most expensive Korean movie ever made. And it would also turn out to be the most successful, earning way more money at the Korean box office than Titanic had. Shiri, then, was a hugely important catalyst for the Korean action-movie business, which has grown over the years into one of the world’s greatest. These days, South Korea is at least as important to action cinema as Hong Kong. That starts here.

1999 would also prove to be a great year for consciously cool, existentialist action movies. Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To, who’d been working for decades, really found his voice with 1999’s The Mission, about a group of ridiculously badass mob enforcers—all of them channeling Alain Delon to one degree or another—assigned to protect a hapless aging gang boss. (To also directed the relatively pedestrian Running Out Of Time in 1999, but his run of greatness was beginning.) That same year, Jim Jarmusch cast Forest Whitaker as a present-day samurai assassin in the great, absurd Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai.

Compared to works of strange brilliance like The Matrix and Ghost Dog, most of the year’s American action movies couldn’t help but look hopelessly clumsy and out of date. The World Is Not Enough might’ve been the first truly shitty and pointless Pierce Brosnan Bond movie; it stands out mostly for the audacity of casting Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist. End Of Days pitted Arnold Schwarzenegger against janky CGI demons. Universal Soldier: The Return made the first Universal Soldier look like a visionary work. The Corrupter did nothing for its mismatched stars, Chow Yun-Fat and Mark Wahlberg. The only old-school action star who came out looking good was Mel Gibson, whose Payback was an enjoyably nasty take on Richard Stark’s great Parker novels.

Instead, 1999 made it clear enough that, in the years ahead, many of the best action movies would come from outside Hollywood, from different corners of the world. In Hong Kong, Jackie Chan made Gorgeous, a romantic comedy that still somehow worked as a Jackie Chan movie, and he also left his stamp on (and made a cameo in) the fearlessly silly Gen-X Cops. In Japan, young asshole auteur Takashi Miike opened his Dead Or Alive with an absolutely peerless five-minute montage of violence and debauchery and then topped it with his ending, a science-defying fight scene in which the last two surviving characters rip each other into actual pieces before literally destroying the entire planet. (Miike would follow it up with two sequels, naturally.) And in Jamaica, a cheap and amateurish shoot-’em-up (albeit one with great music) called Third World Cop became a national phenomenon. This was only the beginning. By the end of the next decade, it was pretty clear that action movies didn’t belong to Hollywood anymore.

Next time: With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee discovers that old-school wuxia kung-fu movies make an unlikely-but-ideal vehicle for lyrical romanticism.