Death of the Critic

Anatomy of a Scene - The Matrix

Written by: Tom Blaich


It is harder than you might think to make a great action scene. But it isn’t that hard to make a good one. Just get an engaging actor, give them a big gun, and a crowd full of goons to let loose upon. A scene like this is entirely serviceable, but many directors try to make it more complex by incorporating too many characters, with too confusing of action, and all of a sudden, you don’t know what is going on anymore. What was once a good action scene has become terrible. A good scene needs to remain clear, no matter what. You should be able to identify the positions of characters and how they are moving through the world, without unnecessary establishing shots bogging it down, all while remaining compelling and heart pumping.

The Matrix is a film heavily influenced by its contemporaries, but with its stylish take on action, you can still feel its ripples today. It is a story that everyone can recognize, and about three quarters of the way through the movie, it changes from a science-fiction thriller with action scenes to a true action film. Neo and Trinity need to rescue Morpheus from the cold-blooded Agents, holed up in a heavily defended office building. And the movie decides to dial the intensity up to 11. “We need guns, lots of guns.” All of a sudden, it is a massive room of weapons piled around them. It gives you an idea of the lunacy that is to come when they enter the lobby.

What is amazing about this scene is how clear it is. Going in, you know definitely who is good and who is bad. There are no qualms about killing anyone and everyone in the building, because they are all just pieces of code, ready to be used by the Agents at a moment’s notice. We know that Neo and Trinity are capable of so much more than any humans besides an Agent, and the lobby lets us see that in action.

We come from a scene of Agent Smith interrogating Morpheus, dropping his cold, machine-like persona as he gets closer and closer to his face. It ratchets up the tension for us, reminds us of the goal of this plan, the time limit they have before he is broken, and how high the stakes are if they fail. It cuts from this scene into a scene of Neo walking into the lobby, thick-soled black combat boots striding menacingly and confidently towards the desk. We don’t know many details of their plan, but we naturally assume that there is one, for them to be able to overcome the night unkillable agents on their home turf. The music ratchets up the tension as he walks in and places a black duffel bag on the conveyor belt of an x-ray scanner. You think that they know what to do to get by the security checkpoint, and as he steps through the metal detector, an alarm goes off. The guard looks almost bored as he asks him to remove any metal objects. How are they going to get by?

With lots of guns. It is simple, it is ridiculous, and the look of confusion on the guards face captures it all. “Holy shit” before he is blown backwards and Neo unloads with two submachine guns on the rest of the guards. One manages to call in backup before he is also gunned down by Trinity. As the two walk into the lobby, black duffel in one hand, we hear footsteps, running groups of combat boots rushing into cover behind the many pillars as our heroes stand in the center.

What they’ve done is set up the scene, and the action within it. We know the position of the guards and how they are armed, the size of the room, the placement of the goal (the elevator), and how many people are in their way. We know how Neo and Trinity are armed and that the bag is important. In just a moment, they’ve set the stage for chaos in a way that lets us follow it clearly.

“Freeze!” There is a look passed between them, as vocal as they get in this scene before they split to the side of the room, gunfire pouring down like rain. The camera cuts dozens of times over the next two minutes, but even during that, the action remains clear. Perspectives shift, focus moves back and forth, yet all the while we can tell exactly where they are and how far they have left to go to get to the elevator.

This simple idea is something that very few actions scenes get right. When building a firefight, there are a few things that you have to consider. Making the action easy to follow, making the action compelling and believable, and making the action spectacular. All of these ideas are very well represented here. It is easy to follow, without us ever getting lost, and we can believe that Neo and Trinity are so much better than the literal cannon fodder that they are fighting. Throughout the scene, as Neo takes cover behind a stone pillar, bullets and shotgun shells tearing it apart around him, each bullet feels like it has weight and threat, and as he runs through clouds of dust and debris, we want to see what comes next. The acrobatic gunfights and ridiculous moves feel real even as they breed chaos.

The way that they capture this is what makes this scene truly great instead of just being good. They combine hectic chaos with slow-motion shots taken straight out of John Wu’s films, in a way that translates into the perfect, bite-sized action scenes. It isn’t ridiculous, as Neo runs around dual-wielding assault rifles and flipping around in slow motion. But it is believable in a way that most scenes are not. Elegant simplicity combined with ridiculous action makes for a 3rd act to remember.


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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