If there’s one thing other than the mind-bending philosophies that catapulted the “Matrix” trilogy into cult classic status, it’s the fight choreography and innovation behind the revolutionary slow-mo “bullet time” effects.
In anticipation of “The Matrix Resurrections” in which Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss are reprising their 20-year-old roles as Neo and Trinity, fans are left wondering how the two of them are still alive and what they will be fighting against in this newest installment.
NextShark spoke with “Resurrections” stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio, who sports an impressive list of nearly 80 stunt credits on IMDb and worked on series and films such as “Bourne,” “John Wick,” “Doctor Strange,” “Black Panther” and “Birds of Prey.” The Filipino Canadian-born martial artist broke down the colossal undertaking behind the fourth movie and what inspired him to go down the path of stunt work.
Warning: Contains spoilers for those who have not seen the series.
Knowing kung fu
Eusebio’s parents wanted him to pursue a career in science; however, his calling was firmly rooted in martial arts, since he studied it as a child growing up in California. He would watch Hong Kong martial arts stars Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Chow Yun-fat and Yuen Biao and attempt to emulate them while he was in high school. It wasn’t too far of a stretch, especially since his coaches, David Leitch (“Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”) and Chad Stahelski (“John Wick”) would later end up becoming famous stunt directors as well as stunt doubles and stuntmen for the “Matrix” movies.
Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the creators of the series, are longtime fans of anime and martial arts. They were inspired by films like “Ninja Scroll,” “Akira” and the 1995 version of “Ghost in the Shell” whose motifs centered around sci-fi noir, sword-wielding and guns, mechanically-integrated worlds or dystopias. The Wachowskis wanted to portray their world as authentically and respectfully influenced by Asian martial arts and asked Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo-ping to work as the stunt coordinator for the original trilogy.
Needless to say, Eusebio had Yuen’s large shoes to fill and said he felt the pressure, but he was also honored. Despite his extensive resume, he admitted it’s a different story when it comes to the people he idolizes.
“Guns. Lots of guns.”
It was Hong Kong director John Woo’s classic 1986 film “A Better Tomorrow” and its signature of gangsters in slowed and dramatic gunfights that led to the origin of “gun fu” — a fighting style that mixes physical combat with gun work and became a major influence for the iconic "Matrix" action sequences. Eusebio noted how Woo pioneered the style and that it was different back then because those movies didn’t require you to number your bullets.
“We made the reloads more of an art form, so we combine the close-combat martial arts with the shooting with the reloads, [and] so we just kind of took it up a couple notches,” he said. “But I have to give credit where credit’s due.”
“The body cannot live without the mind”
“John Wick,” which also stars Reeves, is at a level that many stuntmen refer to as “stunt porn” due to its meticulously integrated movements and portrayal of a world-class assassin. In “John Wick,” Reeves executes extremely tight and lethal kills as the Baba Yaga, whereas in “The Matrix,” his movements are simpler for his role as an almost all-powerful savior, The One.
Eusebio was tasked with creating new fighting styles that informed audiences of each of the actor’s characterizations. As a longtime fan of Hong Kong-style movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s, he enjoyed their continuous and nonstop movements and rhythm.
“With Neo, ‘The Matrix’ stuff was based off of Chinese martial arts, so everything is circular, more fluid. We based John Wick off Japanese martial arts, which is kind of linear and very short and efficient,” the stunt coordinator said. “So just the fighting styles alone are completely different, but you have to cinematize things according to the character, so I’ll take liberty with some of the flow of Chinese martial art movies or Hong Kong movies.”
“The Matrix is more like a dance between two combatants,” Eusebio continued. “It’s not so much close-quarter combat, it’s all kind of a hand-and-feet range. More of an outside range type of fighting, less impact on his body.”
For the role of the Baba Yaga, there’s an incredible amount of physicality involved. The audience can see how brutal an impact Wick has while grappling his enemies and slamming them hard enough to ricochet off a concrete floor. But as Neo in “Resurrections,” the character is well past his prime and back in a simulation.
“It’s more labored for him,” Eusebio said. “Getting back into the gist of things — your mind knows, but your body can't follow. You remember how to do things, but your body just doesn't have the same timing or the same endurance.”
Just as Neo was described as being like “a machine” while the knowledge was being downloaded into his brain, Eusebio said that Reeves is very attuned to his body and able to portray these nuances. Neo is a tired veteran of the simulation, and there are moments where the audience can feel the weight behind how he struggles to do a single push when he used to fight an army of Smiths and agents with ease.
“It’s like an old gunslinger who retired for so long, and it’s hard for him to get back into that mood when he was in his prime,” Eusebio explained. “We kept very aware that over time he wasn’t as skilled [and is] relearning everything in a short amount of time.”
From there, it was a matter of training more of the film’s stars. Matrix newcomers Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays an alternate Morpheus, and Jessica Henwick, who plays a human ally named Bugs, portray fighting styles specific to their characters.
Reeves and Moss follow a more Eastern approach to match the first three movies. Abdul-Mateen II and Henwick use more of a hybrid, mixed Western approach with boxing, Thai boxing and the Southeast Asian martial art silat. Henwick herself stated that she initially channeled the intelligent anime reverse-blade swordmaster character Kenshin for the role.
Eusebio would have Henwick staying low, changing direction and moving fast, whereas Abdul-Mateen II would be upright and maintain a grounded presence.
While there is a lot of mind-boggling newness that might jolt fans, “Resurrections” still offers familiar and iconic moves, like a very fluid scorpion kick from another favorite Matrix veteran.
“The Matrix Resurrections” will be available to watch in theaters on Dec. 22 and on HBO Max through its Ad-Free plan for 31 days following the theatrical release.
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