When it was released in 1988, Die Hard set a new standard for action movies. For a decade afterward, pretty much every single action movie was unable to avoid a comparison with John McTiernan’s film, which delivered such a memorable dose of pure entertainment on a number of different levels, including the use of every conceivable weapon outside of a genuine war zone. The writers of the film, Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza (adapting Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever), contrived plot elements that enabled the film’s characters to use pistols, machine guns, a sniper rifle, a missile launcher, and enough C-4 explosives to blow up several stories of a building. It wasn’t until 1999, when The Matrix came out, that the bar for action sequences was truly set at a higher level. While The Matrix didn’t use any of Die Hard‘s trademark humor, it built an intriguing universe for its characters to inhabit that served as a suitable counterpoint to the film’s unforgettable action sequences.
The Film: The Matrix
The Song: “Spybreak”
The Artist: Propellerheads
Who’s Who: Few people outside (or inside) of Hollywood had heard of Larry and Andy Wachowski prior to the release of The Matrix. They had written the script for Richard Donner’s Assassins (1995), a film so poorly made that it managed to garner criticism from conservatives and gun-rights activists despite consisting of little more than pure gunplay. They also made the most of their opportunity to direct Bound (1996), turning out a nifty little B-movie noir on a tight budget and working with actor Joe Pantoliano for the first time. After they passed their “audition,” producer Joel Silver (who also produced Assassins) entrusted the Wachowskis with a $63 million budget; they responded by directing the first movie to successfully exploit the “virtual reality” conceit, redefining the action genre in the process and generating gross receipts of almost half a billion dollars.
Propellerheads are a British group consisting of electronic artists Will White and Alex Gifford. The details of their biography aren’t particularly interesting, unless you’re a fan of the “big beat” style of electronic music.
Why It Works: Too often, when filmmakers are trying to convey the sense that a fight scene is taking place quickly, they resort to hyperkinetic editing and fast cuts that end up being more confusing than anything else. One of the most effective aspects of the Wachowski brothers’ filmmaking style is their technique of using slow motion to make fast motion look even faster. It’s a neat trick, and the exquisitely timed explosions of stone as Neo and Trinity race among the stone pillars, along with the rain of falling shell casings, emphasize the ridiculous number of bullets that are fired in the lobby shootout scene. When heard independently from the film, there’s nothing particularly memorable about “Spybreak,” but when it’s combined with the excitement of this scene it blends seamlessly into the film, and it becomes impossible to imagine the action set to any other song.
What Goes Wrong: I’m not the first viewer to notice the moral implications of murdering dozens of presumably innocent security guards who have committed no greater transgression than being tricked by the architects of the Matrix into believing that their job is to prevent a pair of potential terrorists from entering the building. But let’s not overthink this — Neo certainly isn’t going to.