Blitz (Aus), June 1999
The Martial Arts Moves Behind Matrix
Sci-fi buffs aren't the only ones queuing around the corner to see Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving in Hollywood's futuristic thriller, The Matrix. Reeves and co. trained for four months to perform the film's many martial arts fight scenes, as Michael Schiavello discovered.
"I'm going to learn Ju Jitsu?"
It's not the sort of line you'd expect to hear from the mouth of Keanu Reeves, let alone as part of the script of a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. But Ju-Jitsu, Taekwondo, Drunken Boxing, Kempo and Kung Fu is exactly what Reeves' character, Neo, learns as part of his computerised 'combat' training as he prepares to uncover the secrets of the matrix in the hit movie of the same name.
In the futuristic world of The Matrix, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) straps Reeves into a chair and downloads the components of his combat training via computer. Forget sweating it out on the dojo floor - insert a disk, press a button and all of a sudden Reeves is a butt-kicking black belt who could eat Sam Greco for breakfast.
When he awakes from his 'training', a wide-eyed Neo exclaims, "I know Kung Fu!" and is ready to put his newfound expertise to the test.
If only real life martial arts training could be as easy as clicking a button. Fact is that it isn't, and even the magic of the movies couldn't substitute for the real life, hands-on training which Reeves, Fishburne, Hugo Weaving and Carrie-Anne Moss underwent for their roles.
Producers, Larry and Andy Wachowski, wanted to make the movie's fight scenes something more than violence for the sake of violence. While it was necessary to increase the movie's adrenaline, they did not want to compromise their ultimate vision to make an intellectual action movie.
"We like action movies, we like fighting, we like guns. We like all that stuff, we think it's fun, we think it's cool. But we're tired of those movies not having any ideas in them at all. And one of the things we tried to do was basically infuse this movie with as many relevant ideas as we could, so there's a lot of dialogue."
As the movie brimmed with brains, it was important to balance it out with an impressive amount of brawn. Dealing with digital reality gave the producers the freedom to push the boundaries of what might be humanly possibly to achieve in a fight scene. "If the characters in The Matrix can have information instantaneously downloaded into their heads, they should, for example, be able to be as good a Kung Fu master as Jackie Chan," says Larry Wachowski.
In an effort to make their stars look as good as Jackie Chan, the Wachowskis turned to the very man who directed two of Chan's first hits, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master.
The man was Yuen Woo Ping, one of the top Hong Kong stunt specialists in both Kung Fu and wire-stunt work.
Born in Guangzhou in 1945, like all Chinese children, Woo Ping studied Peking Opera and Kung Fu under the tutelage of his father, Yuen Sin Tin.
It was Sin Tin who first brought his eldest son to the attention of movie producers in the 1960s, leading to work as a Kung Fu fighter and stuntman for Shaw Brothers.
The Wachowskis were fans of Woo Ping's films, with the knowledge that he had worked with some of the silver screen's best fighters including Jackie Chan, Jet Lee and Donnie Yen.
What they wanted for The Matrix were fight scenes set apart from the traditional Hollywood fisticuffs. The type of fights that typified Asian cinema and could only be directed by a master such as Woo Ping.
"Most American stunt work uses rams or pneumatics to project a person through the air at a certain speed. With wire-stunt work, the stunts are far more controlled and very stylised," says executive producer, Barrie Osborne. "It's almost like puppeteering, but using a real person. It takes tremendous skill and finesse." It would take Woo Ping.
Osborne located Woo Ping in China and asked him to join their team. Woo Ping agreed on one condition: that the cast train specifically with him, no matter how many hours it took, to learn Kung Fu and how to work with the wires.
It was a big request for the Wachowskis to make. How do you tell an actor that they're going to have to spend four months training and learning Kung Fu when they could make another movie in that same time? But Reeves and his co-stars agreed to undertake the training, accepting that it was a necessary part of making The Matrix the box-office success they anticipated it would be.
The cast trained with Woo Ping and his team for three months in Los Angeles before moving to the movie's Sydney location for another month of training. Woo Ping taught them basic Kung Fu, how to apply the techniques to wires and incorporated intense physical training. The actors laboured through exhausting eight-hour days, pushing their bodies to their physical limits, causing several injuries during training and filming. Weaving suffered hip trauma and Reeves aggravated on old neck injury; both actors required surgery.
It was testing and tiresome, but an experience they viewed as a privilege.
"It was an honour to work with Woo Ping," says Keanu Reeves in his familiar, laid-back tone. "I've always been a fan of his work and it was a wonderful opportunity to learn his techniques and style of fighting."
Fishburne also felt honoured.
"It was really intense but it was a lot of fun. I believe we were the first Western actors to work in this particular style and I feel tremendously grateful to have had that opportunity. Plus (the martial arts training) made me fitter than I have ever been before and that's a great feeling!"
Woo Ping's style is evident in The Matrix's combat scenes. Perhaps none more so than the long sparring scene between Reeves and Fishburne inside a virtual dojo.
The session between Reeves and Fishburne is pacy, impactful and technical. Both men assume animal-style Kung Fu stances before engaging in a rapid fire of punches. While Reeves attacks with straight punches, Fishburne coolly blocks and parries. Reeves changes his stance, hopping about on the balls of his feet like a Western boxer with a Bruce Lee demeanour. He springs into the air delivering a Wu Shu-style triple kick, lands, unloads with front kicks and roundkicks to the ribs before firing out a sidekick which Fishburne catches.
Fishburne's defences are impressive, checking Reeves' low-line kicks and tying up his arms not unlike Wing Chun's trapping hands techniques.
Reeves' kicks are his strong point. His arsenal includes quick hook kicks; a scintillating double roundkick combination off the same leg to the ribs and head, executed with the precision and control of a champion point fighter; and a textbook side kick.
Fishburne's kicks aren't too shabby either. After executing an over-the-shoulders Aikido-style throw, Fishburne lets loose with a side kick of his own which sends a wire-assisted Reeves crashing through a wooden pillar.
As Reeves' mentor, Fishburne constantly offers him advice. When Reeves looks taken aback by Fishburne's inexplicable speed - and his own lack of it - Fishburne, with the reassuring calmness of a Shaolin monk from a 1970s chop-socky flick, says 'Don't think you are (fast), know you are.'
Australia's resident Hong Kong action cinema expert, Tang Lai Wei, was impressed by the fight choreography, stunt work and martial arts technique presented in the film.
"The movement is indicative of Southern style Kung Fu. This is the same sort of movement you will find in so many Asian films, including older films like Drunken Master and more recent productions like Once Upon a Time in China, which were both films that Woo Ping worked on," says Tang.
"The trapping and blocking is typical of Southern style Kung Fu, too, and there is a little Ju Jitsu and Judo mixed in. I also spotted some Wu Shu-style moves, in particular Carrie-Ann Moss's jumping kicks which were like the eagle style movements of Wu Shu."
Another obvious feature of the film is the homage paid to the greatest Kung Fu screen star of them all, Bruce Lee. Several of Reeves' hand movements and facial expressions in his sparring scene with Fishburne are a direct play on the dynamic expressions of Lee. Later in the film, when Reeves reaches the apex of his martial arts powers against a seemingly invincible Hugo Weaving, he executes a textbook sidekick and leaves his leg extended in the air, pointed towards his attacker. This is a mirror of Bruce Lee's similarly intimidating pose in Enter the Dragon.
"All in all they come across very well," says Tang. "Of course the fights are heavily edited to hide all the faults the actors would have had, but their stunt and wire work is very effective."
Woo Ping himself acknowledges that he was impressed with the final edit. "Given that none of the cast had any kind of Kung Fu background or knowledge, the final results were far better than I could ever have hoped to achieve," he says.
Another contributing factor to the film's final look was the use of a unique camera technique called bullet-time photography. Super slow motion was relied on heavily in the stylisation of the action scenes but certain movements in the script called for something special. These scenes required dynamic camera movement around slow-motion events that approached 12,000 frames per second. This flow-mo process allowed the filmmakers almost unlimited flexibility in controlling the speed and movement of onscreen elements. For example, a fighter leaping into the air to kick his opponent could accelerate to the peak of his leap, appear to hover in the air, extend his leg in a lightning-fast movement, and then gently descend to the ground. It is an effect widely used in Japanese animation, in which the action is broken down into its components and those elements meticulously controlled to build the most dramatic effect from dynamic movement.
The Matrix follows on from Blade (Wesley Snipes) and The Big Hit (Mark Wahlberg) as a mainstream Hollywood action flick employing Asian fight choreography, stunts and wirework. The Wachowskis and Warner Bros. took a punt on employing Oriental butt-kicking techniques in such a high-budget film. However, the fact that The Matrix has proven the highest-grossing film of the year thus far, augurs well for more Asian-style action in Hollywood's near future.