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Ranking the fight scenes of The Matrix trilogy

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Twenty years. Twenty long years since the first Matrix film was released, and its wake it left a distinctive footprint on Hollywood: A cyberpunk trilogy that began with a mad scramble to find a saviour and ended on a note that could only be described as biblical in scale. While The Matrix and its sequels were pioneers in their use of cyber themes, the idea of free will and special effects that would be butchered by imitators in the years to come, it was also the best example of Hollywood adopting the wire-fu of Asian cinema and using it to enhance their own style of filmmaking.

Kind of.

While no two fight scenes are equal in The Matrix trilogy, some are clearly better than others. Whether it be the action sequences that saw pitch-perfect choreography or an end to a saga that blended high budget special effects with hard-hitting kung-fu, here’s our ranking of the worst, kind of okay and absolutely sublime fight scenes that made The Matrix series so memorable.

The burly brawl – Neo vs Agent Smith

Matrix fights (1)

We’re here because of you Mr. Anderson. We’re here to take from you what you tried to take from us; purpose.

This was it. The rematch that fans had been waiting years for, that the marketing hype had built up to an absurd degree with snippets of action and a showdown that was designed to blow the legendary subway scene from the first Matrix film out of the water, just like that time your drunk uncle decided to use a stick of dynamite as fish bait.

And to be fair, at the time, this was a game-changer of a fight scene. Neo taking on a horde of Smith agents, fighting tooth and nail against an army that was running rampant and realising that even his power as The One wasn’t enough for a nemesis who had gone viral. There’s no denying just how daring this scene was so many years ago, as it raised the bar for what an action sequence could be.

And then that bar was surpassed in the aftermath of that encounter. With a couple of years under its belt, Neo’s first rematch is quantum science in effect: Absolutely brilliant to remember and then it all falls apart once you observe it. The special effects have aged to the point where they look like a Final Fantasy cutscene from the PlayStation One era, whereas the non-CG fight sequences feel too choreographed, too floaty and come off more like a high school lesson in ballroom dancing.

There’s a lot of things that The Matrix trilogy will and should be remembered for, but a Keanu Reeves fistfight against a swarm of Stretch Armstrong dolls probably isn’t one of them.

Upgrades – Neo vs Agents 2.0

Agent upgrades

He is still…only human.

The first taste of Neo’s unlocked ability to kick ass better than anyone has ever put foot to butt before is just that in the opening act of The Matrix Reloaded: A taste. If there’s any highlight to this scene between Neo and a trio of upgraded Agent programs, it’s the brevity between The One’s fists finding a face to caress with velocity-laden knuckles, but it’s done so in a manner that just feels…unnatural.

If you ever wanted a perfect example of Hollywood’s take on the cinematic and iconic action of Hong Kong choreography, this was it: Wire-fu taken to an absurd extreme, resulting in a clumsy dance that’s over before it even begins. It’s not the most awful fight scene ever and seeing Neo absolutely wreck the dreaded enforcers of the Matrix is always a delight, but this scene’s biggest sin is that it may just be the most forgettable of the bunch.

Tea House Test – Neo vs Seraph

Tea House Test

I must apologise.

Having already established how his ability to turn agents into ragdolls was no mere fluke, one of the biggest surprises in The Matrix Reloaded was finding out that while Neo may have had the skills to pay the bills, he wasn’t the only being in the Matrix who knew how to deliver a program-shattering roundhouse kick.

Tested by Seraph before he could he visit the Oracle, what follows is…Well let me put it this way: Imagine filming a fight scene so forgettable and non-essential to the story, that years later when a hack of a writer hammers out a feature ranking all the action in The Matrix trilogy completely forgets to add this scene until the 11th hour. Make of that, what you will.

Chateau le ass kick – Neo vs the Merovingian’s bodyguards

Matrix fights (3)

Okay, you have some skill.

On the plus side, watching Neo demolish a scenic villa in the Alps by decorating it with hostile program organs still makes for a scenic explosion of action! The problem here though, is that for all the gorgeous sets, multiple opponents and a lucky packet of weapons that shows off just how deadly Neo can be if his hands have some steel inside of them, the entire fight is filmed as if it were an underwater ballet sequence.

The clumsiness of Neo v Agent Smith: Dawn of Justin Timberlake is still felt here with attacks that are more telegraphed than 1800s e-mail, slow motion is abused and the battle drags on for far longer than it has any right to. If a train carrying the entire contents of the Louvre were to go off the rails, it’d be an apt description for this scene.

Highway battle – Morpheus vs Agent 2.0

Matrix fights (2)

Go kick his ass.

Here’s the thing about the highway battle in The Matrix Reloaded: It’s not good, and even though it’s the least-worst of Reloaded’s action sequences, it’s only better than them by virtue of the fact that it required an absurd amount of coin, design and preparation to pull off. After getting his ass handed to him by an Agent in The Matrix, Morpheus finally got a chance to shine when he took on the system’s newest hostile program that was updated to install fists into his face, resulting in yet another sequence that looked great at the time but shows its age today.

I don’t care though, because while the actual fight may resemble what a mud wrestling match would be like if syrup were used instead, the sheer magnitude of the entire sequence deserves a lot more love than it got over the years. Building an actual stretch of road, hiring an army of stunt drivers and still finding a way to layer visual effects on top of that to create a cohesive action-packed third act that has never been replicated in the years since then?

That’s a hell of an achievement.

Bathroom brawl – Morpheus vs Agent Smith

Matrix fights (5)

The great Morpheus. We meet at last.

At this point in The Matrix, audiences already had a taste of just how dangerous Morpheus was. An earlier dojo fight between him and Neo demonstrated a gulf between their skills that was so massive that Evel Knievel would want to jump over it, and with Agent Smith coming dangerously close to ending the prophecy of The One before it could even begin, a sacrifice had to be made.

Morpheus vs Smith, in a dingy bathroom with no outside interference. This was the fight that proved that while Morpheus may have been a lethal renegade, the Agents were undoubtedly the apex predators of the Matrix. More one-sided than a Mobius Strip, Smith absorbed everything that Morpheus had to offer and then proceeded to use the rebel’s face to remodel the bathroom they were in, brutally knocking out Neo’s mentor in a display of power.

There’s nothing pretty about this fight, but that’s the point: Just pure machine logic, coldly using the most efficient tactics to fulfill an objective.

The One vs The Many – Neo vs Agent Smith

Super burly brawl

Mr Anderson, welcome back. We missed you.

If The Matrix Reloaded was celebrated upon its released and laughed at years later when retrospect kicked in, then The Matrix Revolutions is the exact opposite. A third act in a trilogy that has managed to age beautifully, this was the film where everything was at stake. The machines were about to destroy Zion, Smith was about to infect the world and only a chosen one could stop him.

What followed was a fight that blended the best that The Matrix had to offer with an eye for the most cinematic roundhouse kicks ever committed to film, a Kung Fu epic with the power of an unlimited Hollywood budget behind it and an eye for framing every blow with a level of beauty that would make Dragon Ball Z fans jealous and aroused.

It’s a fight that works on multiple levels, blending gritty kung-fu together with just the right amount of scenic slow-motion, epic special effects that shattered an entire city and a climax that nobody saw coming. If The Matrix trilogy was ready to end, then this was the highest possible note that the franchise could go out on.

Subway showdown – Neo vs Agent Smith

Matrix fights (4)

My name…is Neo.

SURPRISE! While the iconic subway showdown is the best fight ever on many a list, it only ranks at number two on this one. That being said, there’s no denying just how influential this particular sequence was, a love letter to Honk Kong cinematography where every bolt is tightened to the point of breaking and kicks off with a high noon showdown that Clint Eastwood would be proud of.

From a medley of bullets zipping around each other to the pure brutality of Agent Smith’s offense favouring brute force over Neo’s more technical sleight of fist, everything about this fight is just sublime. Subtly one-sided but still amazingly inspired in its execution, it’s still the action scene you think of whenever The Matrix is mentioned.

Dojo fight – Neo vs Morpheus

Matrix fights (6)

Then hit me. If you can.

So what’s the one fight scene that could top even the Subway showdown? None other than Neo’s first taste of combat. It’s a simple enough scenario, as Morpheus prepares to test his new acolyte in a sparring program to see just how much he has learnt. What makes it brilliant isn’t just the fact that within seconds you’ll believe that you’re watching two kung-fu masters with a few centuries of combat experience under their black belts in action, but that the fight is just everything that The Matrix was:

Absolute zero in its coolness, enhanced by an amazing soundtrack and worth watching not twice but several hundred times over as Neo and Morpheus pushed each other to their very limits in one of the most beautiful sets that Hollywood has ever constructed. It’s fast, it’s furious and once the dust had settled you’ll be reaching for a cigarette to enjoy the afterglow of seeing the renegades of The Matrix match one another blow for blow in a virtual dream-world.

Last Updated: September 5, 2019

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