Keanu Reeves in The Matrix

By Martha Burr

Action Hero Evolves into Kung Fu Star
It's been a long journey from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure to The Matrix. Along the way Keanu Reeves has done Shakespeare and Bertolucci, vampires and surfing. Now, it is the 22nd century, an eerie, mechanical world where machines keep their human slaves passive by literally plugging them into a virtual-reality universe that appears as the 20th century world we know. Reeves plays Neo, a computer hacker recruited to join a band of freedom fighters. These rebels, led by Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), are struggling against the powerful computers which have mankind locked in their grip.

"I play a guy named Thomas Anderson," says Keanu, "who's looking for a man named Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne. I'm searching for an answer to a question. The question is, what is the Matrix? My character feels that the answer to the question will somehow make sense of his life. I'm playing someone who is alienated from the world around him. Suspicious of the world around him. I feel something's wrong with the world and it's been driving you mad like a splinter in your mind and if I find out what is the Matrix, it will bring me peace. So I'm playing a searcher."

The film's directors Larry and Andy Wachowski explain, "We began with the premise that every single thing we believe in today and every single physical item is actually a total fabrication created by an electronic universe. Once you start dealing with an electronic reality you can really push the boundaries of what might be humanly possible. So if characters in The Matrix can have instantaneous information downloaded into their heads, they should, for example, be able to be as good a kung-fu master as Jackie Chan."

This idea offered the Wachowski brothers the opportunity to work into the movie fight choreography they had seen in Hong Kong action films. "We've always wanted to bring Hong Kong fight sensibilities into our Western story ideas," they said. "This was the perfect opportunity."

Kung Fu and The Matrix
Larry and Andy Wachowski (whose last feature was the dark thriller Bound, starring Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly), had no problem making a choice about who they wanted to do the fight choreography. They had seen the work of Yuen Woo Ping, as a director in The Tai Chi Master, Iron Monkey, and Wing Chun, and as the fight choreographer in the Jet Li movies Fist of Legend and Once Upon a Time in China. In Hong Kong Yuen Woo Ping is one at the top of his art. Here in America he is relatively unknown, something that might change quickly after The Matrix. His story is a real kungfu story, one intertwined with Chinese opera, Wong Fei Hung, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. (See April 1999 Wushu/Kungfu/Qigong for full Yuen Woo Ping story.) Along with Tsui Hark, Yuen Woo Ping has been one of the major forces to practically reinvent the modern kungfu movie, bringing innovation in fight choreography, camera angles, tone and editing.

Martial Arts Training for Matrix
Yuen Woo Ping's own condition was that the directors would guarantee that their cast train long hours to learn kungfu and wire work. "That's a big request," remark the Wachowski brothers, "How do you tell an actor that they're going to have to spend four months training and learning kungfu when they could make another movie in that same time? That's what impressed us about Keanu. He understood why it was necessary and the dedication it required. In fact, the whole cast has amazed us with their dedication to the training regime - it's been incredibly rigorous."

Keanu, Lawrence, Carrie-Anne Moss and Australian star Hugo Weaving all trained for four months before shooting the film in Australia, mostly in an obscure warehouse north of Hollywood, in Burbank. I was lucky to have the opportunity to visit the group on several occasions, watch the training and stunt sequences, and chat with Woo Ping, Keanu, Lawrence and more of the cast and Hong Kong stunt crew. The actors were undergoing rigorous training in kungfu and wirework, while at the same time Woo Ping was choreographing fights and action sequences, video camera in hand, experimenting with angles and techniques. At lunch he would watch the footage and make improvements. Sometimes, if the actors had worked extra hard, they got to watch a Hong Kong action film too.

Taking a short break from his training, Keanu gestures to the Hong Kong crew and remarks, "Those guys are great at teaching. They push us, but they also know when to back off. They're organic, and sensitive. I love working with Woo Ping. When we first started to do this the Wachowski brothers gave me some tapes to watch -- Fist of Legend, Tai Chi Master, etc, -- so then when he came aboard, I'd seen what he could do. I've got a great respect not only for his fight choreography but also for his cinema. The way he shoots, and the editing of his fights is great.

"Woo Ping's very cognizant of what looks good and what looks bad and being able to teach that. His fight choreography is so inventive, and it's fun. But it's not silly, it looks like fights. He really wants an authenticity to his choreography."

Woo Ping himself says, "Larry and Andy are very serious directors and they have high expectations for the movie. I am the same way, and so the three of us work very well together. Laurence and Keanu are also very good to work with. Keanu was very dedicated to doing his kungfu and serious about the job. He's a perfectionist."

This dedication sometimes led to some frustration early in the training, since Keanu was recovering from the neck surgery he had four months before. You could see him working past the pain, and he commented, "The hard part is that my body wants to go further and faster, and my will wants to go, but being checked by the neck, and the fear that comes with it. Always being careful. I can't turn my head and my shoulders certain ways, so my style isn't as fluid as it should be. It's been a real hindrance on the taiji part." Fortunately, by the time shooting came around Keanu was in great enough shape to do all the wild wire work and stunts the action required - and the taiji.

Laurence remarks, "I think, speaking for myself and possibly Keanu and Carrie-Anne, we're probably in the best physical shape of our lives just as a result of the training we had to do with Woo Ping. And his choreography is second to none. He's a wonderful director, he's made a lot of movies himself and he brings that kind of expertise to it too."

Keanu and Laurence
It seems odd that two such stellar American actors had never worked together before, but the pairing of Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne seems to create a perfect chemistry in The Matrix. Laurence remarked, after shooting began in Australia, "I had never worked with Keanu before, although I always knew that I was going to, strangely enough. Keanu is a very interesting cat. I've never met anybody like him. He's a very internal kind of person, and he's got one of the best senses of humor of anybody I've ever met. He's very, very funny. Working with him is interesting because he's so internal, and I'm kind of the opposite. So we meet at a very interesting place. But I've had a good time, particularly training kung fu with him. I think we manage to find a place where we both meet and we're both comfortable with each other in the whole training process of kung fu."

Keanu himself says of his co-star, "It's been my first time working with Laurence, and he's a gentleman and an incredible actor. Very honest and inventive and graceful. With his acting he can do anything, he's just so free, he's great."

Watching the actors train with Woo Ping and his team makes you understand that they all have committed to a long, arduous project. But despite the physical pain each actor endures every day, the chemistry between the entire crew is full of energy.

As Keanu comments, "We're certainly pushing the envelope of what's been developing in one part of American cinema of, quote unquote, dramatic actors doing action pictures and doing our own stunts, per se. Even though stuntmen do stunts no matter what anyone tells you.

"But it is putting the actors into the action, pushing that envelope, which is great because people want to have a dramatic experience and be able to have the conduit be the actor and not have the cutaway be the stuntman. This is making more of the drama of the spectacle. Hopefully also making it more entertaining, more resonant."

Acting, Choreography and Character
Keanu notes that Woo Ping is sensitive to each person's abilities and needs. He says, "Woo Ping can teach us so many things and show us, but he does also want to see your style. He says -- I want to see Keanu's style - I say, I don't want to see my style, I want your style! I've been trying to incorporate some of the stunt guys' stuff, from Chen Hu and Dion, and incorporate it and create my own style. So that's what's great, Woo Ping doesn't just put it on you, it's very organic and collaborative."

Keanu continues, "He choreographs dramatically. If you watch Fist of Legend, the fight between Jet Li and the Japanese guy, every moment is connected to a drama, to a desire, a want or a conflict, as its being acting out.

"All of the beats in the dojo scene between myself and Laurence Fishburne have been choreographed around dialogue and drama. It's fun; there's space in there for acting."

The dramatic arc of The Matrix, with two first-rate actors such as Keanu and Laurence, as well as a great supporting cast, creates a film with depth and substance as well as style. The themes of the film are profound, and Keanu explicates them in terms of his character. He remarks, "I meet up with Morpheus who says, you may have spent a few years looking for me but I've spent my whole life looking for you. There's a theme throughout the film about belief and the question of truth. My character always wants to know what truth is and somehow he has to find the answer for himself, he can't be told. One has to know it from inside. One of the themes is also about the individual, about losing one's individuality in a group or community.

"This movie has been something I have never seen before, a kind of melding of heart and soul and spirit and action. You know why you fight, what you are fighting, and what you are fighting for. It's kind of a nice mixture of fetishizing action and fights, but with heart. It's not mindless and senseless, though it is good looking, I guess."

Thoughtful, Keanu continues. "The Matrix is about one's relationship to what is truth, what is reality, the subjective, the objective, simulacra, what is simulated. The quest for truth and the quest for compassion in it as well. It's fighting for the individual, individuality against systems, against control."

"In terms of my character being a kind of superhero...I see some of the perspective influenced by Frank Miller and Japanese angles and perspectives in it. I don't know if it's true, or the illusion of a common reference. The trick is not just to make shapes, but also to give it the heart and soul that they (the filmmakers) want. What is acting in the construct, giving flesh to a cartoon, soul to a machine, synthesizing evolution."

Stunts and Kung Fu
In contrast with pure drama, dramatic action allows the character and the action to intertwine and create a mixture of motion and emotion. Or as Keanu puts it, the dance. "One of the cool things," he says during the filming, "is the relationship between the dance, the sequence of the kung fu or action sequences and the camera. That's been really enjoyable for me. I guess just having the opportunity to train and be exposed to Woo Ping's techniques and styles of fighting for me has been an honor. And we've been doing some Hong Kong style wire work which has been extraordinary, and you get to fly and flip...I'm a fairly physical person and it's been a great outlet. Wire triple kicks, kicks, punches, getting hit, take 30..."

This physicality has inspired both Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves to say that even when the film is done, they want to continue their study of martial arts. "I feel the best I've ever felt," says Laurence, "and I hope I can continue the martial arts training. When the film is over, I'd like to find some people to teach me some more. And stay in it, because obviously it promotes the health and longevity. That's no mystery. So the martial aspect, at least the health aspect of it for me, has been just the greatest blessing."

Keanu is equally enthusiastic, especially about the taiji he has studied during his recent training. "I love kungfu," he says. "The push and pull, the resistance. The soft and the hard. What I really dug was the Chen style Tiger (one of the stuntmen) was showing me. I saw an article in your magazine about it, and I'd love to pursue that. If there was any form of taijiquan I'd do, I'd love to do Chen style. I like the speed of it, and the way they hold that power, shaking from the earth all the way out."

"What I like about the study of kung fu," Keanu states, "is the sensibility, that there's a martial aspect and a spiritual aspect about it. And the goal is personal, not necessarily to conquer, but to achieve."

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1999 .

Written by Martha Burr for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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