The Matrix movie legacy: transforming fight scenes and action cinema forever

Dr Lindsay Steenberg of Oxford Brookes University
Dr Lindsay Steenberg of Oxford Brookes University

Twenty-five years ago, on 11 June 1999, the groundbreaking film The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves, was released in UK cinemas. To mark this anniversary, Dr Lindsay Steenberg, an Associate Professor of Film Studies at Oxford Brookes University, examines the trilogy's transformative impact on Hollywood fight scene choreography.

Dr Steenberg reveals the groundbreaking techniques that made The Matrix a revolutionary force in cinematic combat, highlights the importance of fight scenes in storytelling, and explains the detailed process behind filming these high-energy sequences that forever changed the landscape of action cinema.

What makes a good fight scene? 
In a 2023 interview about his work on the John Wick action films, director Chad Stahelski insisted, “People think we do martial arts. We don’t. We do dance…. It looks like martial arts. It looks like fights. But it is dance.”

I take tremendous joy from this statement because it showcases the skill, artistry, and work that goes into choreographing and performing a fight on screen. It makes us appreciate the rhythmic qualities, musicality, and beauty of the fight scene. As a former stunt performer, Stahelski stunt-doubled as Keanu Reeves in The Matrix films; so he and his action design company 87Eleven have a comprehensive understanding of how to stage a fight.

Having studied fight scenes in detail as part of my academic project on action cinema, I can suggest this: good fight scene choreography, indeed a good fight scene full stop, gives the impression of being spontaneous, instinctive, and desperate. The audience does not want to see a performer pausing as if they are remembering the moves. They do not want to see the hired goons or street thugs waiting their turn to take on our hero. Contemporary audiences are well versed in the vocabulary of skilled violence; they have access to a vast archive of action films from all over the world.

Perhaps they watch boxing or mixed martial arts. They may have seen judo at the Olympic Games. They may be fans of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and followed its stars into mainstream film careers (John Cena, Dwayne Johnson). As an audience, we understand and expect a high level of skill, astonishing aesthetics, and complex choreography from the performers on screen. Hollywood works hard to deliver, as do other cinemas, for example the marvellous fight scenes from recent South Asian films such as ‘RRR’ or the mesmerising athleticism of performers like Tony Jaa.

How vital are good fight scenes to the legacy of a film? 
Fight scenes live on digitally, showing up in countless YouTube videos and top ten rankings. We can take a look at a specific example here of the very Matrix-like film ‘Equilibrium’, starring Christian Bale. In the 2002 film, Bale’s character is the master of the ‘gun kata’, a ritualistic series of movements designed to train the fighter to be faster than bullets. The gun kata is still debated online; it is recreated and criticised. The ritual repetition of these fight scenes online gives them an almost mythological quality that sometimes eclipses the films themselves. 

Also, memorable fight scenes don’t belong exclusively to the action or science fiction genres. One of my favourite fight scenes is the comically amateur curb-side scrap between Hugh Grant and Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’s Diary.

What made the fight scenes in The Matrix stand out in 1999? 
When I saw The Matrix in the cinema in 1999 in a small Southern Ontario town it was unlike anything I had seen before, except perhaps for the Hong Kong films I had seen on late night television. The fights used wirework (a special-effects technique in film or theatre in which actors are suspended from moving wires so that they appear to fly), Asian martial arts, gun kata, and the choreographic complexity of Hong Kong cinema (overseen by the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping). 

But it was not only the arresting action design that made the film stand out, it was also its use of innovative computer generated imagery. ‘Bullet time’ is a key example here. To shoot ‘bullet time’, the filmmakers used multiple cameras to produce the effect of extreme slow motion and a smooth 360 degree tracking shot. It is through ‘bullet time’ we first see Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity, hanging in mid air preparing to kick her hapless opponent. The effect was spectacular and much imitated (see Shrek’s character Fiona’s use of Trinity’s iconic move!) 

When Keanu Reeves’ character Neo begins to understand how life beyond the Matrix might work, he learns skills by downloading them (‘whoa. I know kung fu’). In one memorable sequence, he learns martial arts and deploys his newfound knowledge in a playful and highly skilled contest with Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). This scene solidified the film’s Hong Kong informed action design and, indeed, the stardom of Keanu Reeves who would go on to become an action star unlike the tough muscled heroes of the 1980s.

How did The Matrix shape and change fight scene choreography and action design?
There are several ways in which The Matrix changed our expectations of fight scenes. Perhaps the most important element here was the influence of Hong Kong action filmmaking, embodied on The Matrix set by Yuen Woo-Ping. 

Perhaps my favourite quotation about the film comes from French scholar Jean Baudrillard, whose work Simulacra and Simulation is clearly visible on Neo’s bookshelf. Baudrillard asks, ‘The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.’ 
I never tire of considering this question and wondering at the marvellous combination of spectacle and philosophy that informs the fight sequences of the Wachowskis’ Matrix films.

Are fight-scenes time consuming or difficult to film, and how often are stunt performers used? 
The fight scenes that we see in today’s action cinema are complex, nuanced, and very difficult to get right. They often involve a large team of stunt choreographers, coordinators, performers and special action extras; they certainly involve an impressive and varied skill set. I would suggest that stunt performers are used in all screen fights or action set pieces. 

A good rule of thumb is that if something is difficult enough to be considered a stunt, then it is performed not by an actor but by a trained stunt performer. This is a rule made very clear by my colleague, Lauren Steimer, in her book on the influence of Hong Kong style action.

How important are fight scenes in the success/ popularity of films?
It is not a coincidence that some of the highest grossing films of recent years have been built on action set pieces—the Mission Impossible films, the ever expanding Fast & Furious franchise and of course, films about the world’s favourite assassin: John Wick. 

Have there been any changing attitudes to fight scenes in films since The Matrix? Are fight scenes as common as they used to be in mainstream films?Are directors/ producers more cautious or considered about presenting violence in films?
Fight scenes are, if anything, more common in mainstream films. This may be down to the fact that many blockbuster franchises belong to the action genre, whose primary grammatical unit is the fight scene, followed, closely, by the car chase. 

For the book that I’m currently writing, I have done a detailed analysis of the fight scenes in four major Hollywood franchises, Jason Bourne, John Wick, Fast & Furious and Mission Impossible.
I have observed that fight scenes are longer, denser (as in they include more actual fighting and less talking or posing), and more complex (in that there are multiple fights over several different locations, as in the concluding fight in Mission Impossible: Fallout where Tom Cruise’s team, the Impossible Mission Force (IMF team), diffuse a bomb, fight a crime boss, and partake in a helicopter chase all at the same time.

The Matrix is a story about the confusions between the real and the simulated. It asks some complicated philosophical questions through its mythologically-informed characters: Morpheus, Trinity, the Architect, the Oracle, Persephone. But it likewise asks these questions through its spectacular fight scenes, which combine differential martial traditions and digital augmentations.

About Dr Steenberg
As part of her research, Dr Steenberg has been training as a screen fighter, as well as interviewing professional stunt performers and trainers. She has expertise in fight-scene choreography, with particular focus on 21st-century Hollywood fight scenes. 

Dr Steenberg has been researching, interviewing and training with stunt performers for over a year, and is currently finishing a book on fight scenes post-Matrix Hollywood with a colleague from the University of British Columbia.