Film and drama

Screen Themes: The Matrix vs John Wick (or The Evolution of 'Whoa')

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This week, entertainment editor John Turnbull takes a look at the rise, fall and renaissance of Keanu Reeves from the movie that made him a megastar to his latest hyper-violent opus.

KEANU REEVES will probably never win an Oscar, and is often derided for his limited range and surfer-dude delivery. On the other hand, his movies have made over $3.6 billion at the box office and he has been working consistently in Hollywood for the past 30 years, outlasting many of his contemporaries.

From his film debut in the little-seen Canadian flick One Step Away, through the box office heights of The Matrix (and the disappointment of its terrible sequels) to the poor-career-choice trilogy of Constantine, The Lake House and The Day The Earth Stood Still, Keanu Reeves remains one of the most recognisable actors of his generation.

The Matrix (1999)

(Directed by The Wachowski siblings)

Contrary to popular opinion, The Matrix was not Keanu’s first action movie.

That honour goes to the 1991 bank robbing surfer fantasy Point Break, where Keanu played undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah opposite charismatic villain Bodhi, played by Patrick Swayze. This was followed by the 1994 blockbuster Speed, and Keanu looked set for a stellar career as an action star.

Unfortunately, it was around this time that Keanu started displaying a talent for choosing terrible scripts, which resulted in films like Johnny Mnemonic, Chain Reaction and The Devil’s Advocate being released over the next few years, interspersed with arthouse fare like The Last Time I Committed Suicide.

Directed by Larry (now Lana) and Andy Wachowski, The Matrix was groundbreaking for its use of new camera technology, creating the much imitated ‘bullet time’ effect, and an innovative use of sound design that made the movie a hit on the burgeoning DVD format.

Keanu stars as programmer Thomas Anderson, whose alter-ego Neo is a hacker, back when being a hacker was considered sort of cool. When Neo meets the mysterious Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) he discovers that everything he believed about the world is wrong and is thrown into a struggle between personal freedom and totalitarian control, represented by Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith.

In a refreshing change from most sci-fi movies, Carrie-Anne Moss brings a strong female presence to the film as Trinity, moving from potential love interest to surrogate mother-figure as Neo is reborn into the real world.

More a collection of cool set-pieces than a coherent film, The Matrix nonetheless struck a chord with audiences and inspired a generation of youth to dress in long black coats. Neo was an everyman who gradually discovers he has the power of a god, fights back against the evil robots and starts on the path that will lead to the salvation of humanity. At least, that was the plan, before the movie made over $463 million at the global box office, leading to two unnecessary and borderline incomprehensible sequels.

While The Matrix still holds up reasonably well 25 years after release, the themes of technology run wild and the power of the human spirit seem somewhat heavy handed.

As an actor Keanu, shows growth from riding a surfboard and saying ‘whoa’ in Point Break, in that he now looks somewhat convincing in the heavily CGI rendered fight scenes.

John Wick (2014)

(Directed by David Leitch & Chad Stahelski)

Without a doubt, the most violent film that Keanu has ever done, John Wick tells the tale of a retired hitman who returns to the game when Russian mobsters steal his car and kill his dog.

So far, so generic, right?

The things that separate John Wick from your standard revenge flick are Keanu’s on-screen presence and the accomplished supporting cast. Keanu brings a weary gravitas to the titular role, a part which may have gone to late-term action star Liam Neeson, if he hadn’t been working on the seventeenth sequel to Taken.

Keanu is absolutely convincing as a man with nothing left to lose, who sets his sights on killing the rat-like son of his former employer, played with highly-punchable arrogance by Game of Thrones star Alfie Allen.

The man better known as Theon Greyjoy is joined by an array of character actors including John Leguizamo, Michael Nyqvist, Ian McShane and Willem Dafoe, who chews the scenery as Wick’s former colleague who may or may not be working both sides of the fence.

As is the case in many action movies, females are somewhat under-represented in John Wick with only Adrianne Palicki standing out as dastardly hitwoman Ms Perkins. Palicki acquits herself well in the male-dominated environment (seriously — the only other women in the movie are Wick’s dead wife and a lot of prostitutes), but is out-acted by Dafoe and Deadwood’s Ian McShane.

Making the leap from stunt coordinating to directing, the team of David Leitch and Chad Stahelski prove that they know what makes an action film work, keeping the film moving along but allowing time for you at actually care about the characters.

Keanu’s trademark lack of expression suits John Wick well and based on the film’s performance at the box office will likely lead to higher profile action roles.

It will be interesting to see if he can avoid making the questionable choices that have almost derailed his career in the past, although the recent announcement of another possible sequel to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure suggests that this may not be the case…

The Verdict

If you can ignore the existence of the sequels, The Matrix remains a groundbreaking film that reinvented that way that action was portrayed on film. It will also probably be remembered as the best film the Wachowski siblings ever made, with recent output such as Speed Racer and Jupiter Ascending failing to set the world on fire.

Conversely, John Wick isn’t a reinvention of the revenge genre, but a highly entertaining example of how it should be done. Deftly handled both in the use of violence and the simple character arc travelled by the anti-hero, John Wick marks both a renaissance in the career of Keanu Reeves and a strong first step in the careers of new directors Leitch and Stahelski.

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