“I Know Kung-Fu”: How ‘The Matrix’ Made It Cool For Action Heroes to Be Uncool

     March 31, 2019

There’s a video going around the internet of Keanu Reeves, stranded in Bakersfield, California thanks to an emergency flight landing, not only taking charmingly dad-like control of the situation but treating his fellow grounded passengers to Bakersfield trivia on the impromptu bus ride. It’s sort of the perfect encapsulation of the Great Innate Goodness of Keanu Reeves; the man is kind of a goober, but if he tells you to get on the bus, you get on the bus. It’s the natural, easy affability that gave him the ability to play loveable lunkhead Ted Logan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure back in 1989 but also not miss a beat in the role 30 years later. It’s the same charm that the actor so easily inverts to genuinely unnerving effect in action roles like, say, the title character of the John Wick franchise, where The Boogeyman’s marathon kill sprees give off the everyman weariness of a guy trying to mow the lawn before the game starts. Reeves exists simultaneously on opposite sides of a complex spectrum, is what I’m saying. Twenty years ago this week he landed dead-center of that spectrum and changed the idea of an action hero forever.  We’re talkin’ Thomas A. Anderson from The Matrix. Better known as Neo.

There’s really no way to truly quantify how much Lana and Lilly Wachowski changed the game with their 1999 cyber-punk sci-fi action mash-up. The film’s revolutionary Bullet Time technology reigned supreme across a gamut of knockoffs in the following years. There was slo-mo and Hong Kong-inspired wire-fu in every fight scene of the early 2000s. A bullet trail in every shoot-out. A black trench coat and matching shades in every Hot Topic. But for my money, the most prevalent—and positive—influence came from Reeves himself, and his beautifully un-badass portrayal of one of the most badass characters of all time. Everyone remembers Bullet Time. For me, the action genre was altered forever in a much earlier scene with only one simple phrase:

What an absurdly, delightfully silly moment—in a movie that’s much sillier and much more playful than it’s remembered—that miraculously doesn’t derail the profound story taking place around it. That’s on Reeves, and how the Wachowskis so perfectly framed his Neo. I genuinely can’t imagine another actor delivering “I know kung-fu” as effectively. You can imagine the Wachowskis’ original choice, Will Smith, turning it to 11 and transforming it primarily into a laugh-line. But this was the dawn of a much chiller action hero. Ten years prior, Ted Logan traversed time and space and found it most excellent. Neo got every known martial art known to man direct-downloaded into his brain and the results were similar; a sort of bemused wonderment, not so much scared as pleasantly surprised when presented with infinity.

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Image via Warner Bros.

Rewatching The Matrix, I was shocked by how much of the iconography I remembered over the years came exclusively from the film’s second half. It’s a stellar back-half, mind you; the lobby shoot-out, the bullet dodge, the helicopter rescue of Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the physics-defying subway fight with Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). But what gets lost under the enduring image of black-coat-and-sunglasses Neo—thanks in no small part to the two sequels, which we won’t be discussing in this space—is the skittish-ness of the Neo we first meet. The one shaved bald to board the Nostradamus, throwing up and blacking out after his first un-plugging. Those early days are a key component to the Neo character, realized flawlessly by Reeves.

Think of the character’s first phone conversation with Morpheus as Agents bear down on his office-drone cubicle; Reeves goes into full “fuck this shit I’m out” mode, a suit-and-tie having no part of these shenanigans. Or think of the first time Neo is hooked up to the machine that un-plugs him from the Matrix; he looks at Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) and says, “You’ve done this?”, the pleading in his voice like a kid looking for reassurance at the doctor’s office. Or hell, think of the iconic bullet dodge; like I said, everyone remembers bullet time, but we don’t talk enough about the moment right before it. After unloading an entire clip on an Agent who avoids every shot, Neo turns again to Trinity—there’s a pattern there—and gives a fantastically panicked “Trinity…help.” It’s such a good line delivery; Reeves sounds exactly like a person desperate enough in that moment to give dodging bullets a try.

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Image via Warner Bros.

The point is, Neo, inarguably a bonafide action hero, is bit of a goober, but a goober in the same way Keanu Reeves is a bit of a goober, the type that nevertheless exudes an endless possibility for strength and goodness. Not to say he’s the first EveryMan Action Hero that broke the Schwarzenegger mold; everyone from Cary Grant in North by Northwest to the G.O.A.T John McClane already locked that down. And he’s definitely not the first action star to look silly while pulling off stunts; my dude Buster Keaton was out there redefining physical comedy while legitimately dodging trains and hanging out of ten-story windows all the way back in the ’20s.

But the Wachowskis and Keanu Reeves set a certain template that’s still being used today: Essentially, the non-action-hero playing at action hero so earnestly that it works. The thread that the Matrix sequels lost is the fact Neo is basically a dope given a cool costume and all the right tools—literally the “One” in “anyone”—and he eventually succeeds because he believes in himself so hard. Not a retired cop/former Navy SEAL in the wrong place at the wrong time, but a deeply insecure and frankly scared shitless human hiding behind some kickass shades. It’s a mix of character and actor that morphed into Shia Labeouf big-hearted Sam Whitwhicky in the Transformers movies, into Ansel Elgort‘s gangly getaway driver in Baby Driver, into every freakin’ Marvel Cinematic Universe origin story that sees a quirky outsider and/or dickhead receive a super suit they don’t quite deserve…yet. I’d even argue there’s a direct line between Neo in The Matrix and Seth Rogen‘s stoner-on-a-suicide-mission Dale Denton in Pineapple Express.

And still, no one did it—or, frankly, continues to do it—quite like Keanu. Even twenty years later, The Matrix remains a touchstone, held up by a leading character so untethered by the weighty ideas of what makes an action hero that he eventually learns to fly.

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