The Matrix is a series celebrated for showcasing some of the most sick-ass martial arts moves ever seen in a blockbuster. A fact that makes it kind of unusual that none of the principle cast had a background in martial arts. Well that might have something to do with the producers insisting that they own the moves of any martial artist they hired.
To explain for anyone who perhaps may not be aware of just how ill-prepared the principle cast of The Matrix were when they were making the movie given how competent they seemed during it, that has a lot to do with Yuen Woo-ping. A dick-kicking martial arts choreographer with an eye for martial arts keener than an eagle wearing a black belt.
According to Woo-ping, he was initially quite excited to work with actors as esteemed as Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fucking Fishburne, until that is, he saw them try and throw punches and kicks. Which makes sense considering nobody in the film had any real martial arts experience prior to being cast in the film besides throwing the occasional head-kick in an action movie or some shit like that. This on its own wouldn’t have been that bad if it wasn’t for the fact none of the cast had worked out all that much prior to being cast either.
Something we should point out though is that this wasn’t entirely the fault of the cast since it’s not like you can blame an actor for not being able to roundhouse kick someone in the back of the head from a standing position on command. Also it’s probably worth noting that two of the actors cast, specifically Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving, were both nursing crippling injuries as production began.
In regards to Weaving he was on fucking crutches with a femur injury that meant he could barely walk for the first few weeks of production of a movie where he was supposed to be portraying a tireless digital construct with a complete mastery of all known forms of martial arts.
As for Keanu Reeves, he found out very early in production that his spine was all kinds of messed up and he similarly underwent surgery that left him unable to even throw a kick for several weeks. Reminder, this is a movie where Reeve’s character spends a quantifiable percentage of the film’s run-time upside down firing machine-guns at roomfuls of cops.
It’s probably a testament to Reeve’s commitment to the role that after he was told that he should probably avoid throwing kicks in a martial arts movie his response was to work with Woo-ping to develop a fighting style for Neo that revolved more around punching instead.
Moving swiftly on, as you can probably imagine after the success of the first Matrix movie, a lot of martial arts actors were keen on appearing in the second one and working with Woo-ping. A fact that’s hardly surprising when you consider that Woo-ping was able to make actors with broken bones look like gravity defying badasses who could stand toe-to-toe with superpowered, nigh-unkillable digitised god-beings.
One such actor was Jet Li, who was initially eyed to play Seraph, a master of punch-fu shown as being physically on par with some of the most monstrously powerful characters introduced throughout the series. The thing is, when Li talked to the studio we was surprised to learn they’d want him to commit to 9 months of filming for scenes that would take, at most, 3 months for a martial artist of his calibre.
This was when the studio politely informed Li that after filming his scenes they wanted him to spent about half a year standing in front of a camera performing every move he knew. Why? Well, the studio wanted to take all of Li’s moves, digitise them and put them into a library they could access whenever they wanted. The idea being that they could then program say, a CGI character in an action scene, to flawlessly emulate his style on command.
Li didn’t like the sound of this, especially when he was the studio if they’d, you know, pay him for this at which point they chuckled lightly and explained that they would own the rights to his fighting style forever. The irony of The Matrix being a film where you can download entire fighting styles likely wasn’t lost on Li who told the producers to go and fuck themselves.