If you want to understand the state of the American action movie in the years before The Matrix, know this: in 1998, there was a movie called Black Dog. For those who can’t quite recall, Black Dog tells the story of a truck driver transporting a load of toilets from Atlanta to New Jersey. It stars, among others, Meat Loaf and country singer Randy Travis. This was not even one of the worst action movies of the year.
Needless to say, by the end of the millennium the action genre was in need of a shot in the arm. The action icons of the past two decades were either becoming caricatures of their former badass selves (Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin), trying to reposition themselves as serious actors (Stallone in Cop Land), or selling Bowflex equipment (Chuck Norris as himself in the Bowflex infomercial). Meanwhile, the classic action franchises were withering. Just look at Lethal Weapon 4. The pitch meeting for that went something like this: “Guns! Riggs will act crazy! Chris Rock will ad-lib some jokes! Oh, and Murtaugh is still too old for this shit!”
Luckily, in 1999, The Matrix showed up and blew action fans’ asses completely out of the water. Why exactly was this weird movie about computer hackers, false realities, and a war of survival so cool, revolutionizing action flicks in the same way as Terminator 2 and Avatar? Let’s answer with a pretend Q&A.
Was it because of Keanu Reeves?
Maybe. You could argue Reeves was perfect for the role because the character of Neo takes advantage of his usual persona — he’s dumbfounded by his own powers and the world around him. If Keanu did read for the part, I assume that the producers wanted to hear only his pronunciation of “whoa.”
Was it because of Carrie-Anne Moss in black leather?
Cue the fanboy drool. But as good as she looks in black leather, she alone couldn’t change the action genre forever. Close. But not enough.
Was it because of bullet time?
Hey, who invited the nerd? (I did; I’m the nerd.) Now we’re getting closer. For those who don’t remember or weren’t obsessed with new film technology in the late nineties, The Matrix was the first movie to use bullet time, the amazing effect of the camera suddenly spinning 360 degrees around the action, giving the scene a 3-D-like quality. Bullet time showed up in every movie for the next five years (even Charlie’s Angels), but The Matrix was the first — and you never forget your first time. But really cool special effects does not a good movie make. So it was not solely bullet time.
Was it because The Matrix is the perfect marriage of story with cutting-edge F/X?
Ding, ding, ding! This is the toughest thing to do in an action movie. Moviemakers have too many tools at their disposal and are unable to work them into a good story, so they settle on including cool effects for their own sake. (Transformers, anyone?) But you can’t simply put special effects into a nice story and expect great results (though I think we’d all like to see a version of Shakespeare in Love with 360-degree slo-mo shots of a dude writing a sonnet). The Matrix kicks so much ass because the revolutionary technologies that allowed the filmmakers to bend the universe to their will were used in a movie where the main character learns to — wait for it — bend the universe to his will.
In the world of The Matrix, the laws of physics are flexible. And thanks to the brand-new effects that were at the disposal of the Wachowski brothers, they could show that exact world — a world in which people could dodge bullets, run on walls, and, if you were the chosen one (like Neo), become a pulsating ball of light. The Matrix was a new kind of story with a new kind of technology and wicked cool gunplay. All in all, one of the top five action films of all time. And, of course, let us never forget Carrie-Anne Moss and the outfit.
Nick Stevens tries to make funny about movies, pop culture, and sports as often as possible. He lists John McClane, Batman, and Tom Brady as the people with whom he’d most like to have beers. For more of his grown-up nonsense, visit his Tumblr page or follow him on Twitter.Read More