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What if Will Smith was Neo in The Matrix?

Gordon Lipton



Will Smith in The Matrix image

Have you ever wondered what a movie would be like with a different lead actor? There are so many casting decisions that nearly went a different way. We’re going to explore Will Smith as Neo in 1999s The Matrix over Keanu Reeves.

I’ve taken a look at a handful of disappointing movies and also took a look at how those movies could have been better. Most recently, I also looked at how a great movie could have been even better. I examined what would have happened if Jake Gyllenhaal had played Frodo in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

In that same vein, today I will take a similar look at another great movie. The start of a well-known trilogy: The Matrix. Much like Frodo in Lord of the Rings and Han Solo in Star Wars, the film producers originally wanted to go in a different direction with the iconic role of Neo. But if Keanu Reeves had not played that part, how would it have affected The Matrix and its sequels? And what would have happened to Keanu’s career as a result?

That’s right, movie fans. It’s time to take that uncomfortable red pill and ponder an alternative reality without Keanu Reeves as Neo. So let’s dive in…

The situation: What if Will Smith had accepted the role of Neo?

In the mid-’90s, the Wachowskis directing team formulated the idea to create The Matrix. It wasn’t exactly an easy sell due to its overarching philosophies and complex plotline. Also, the Wachowskis were looking to incorporate the radical new “bullet time” method into their filmmaking. These days the concept of “bullet time” and other similar camera tricks isn’t anything crazy. But, at the time it was a jarring change-up from the more “traditional” aspects of filmmaking. There was quite a lot about this new movie – and its ensuing franchise – that was radical. It was new, and potentially confusing to all parties involved.

Would audiences go for such a complex and philosophical story as the foundation for a potential blockbuster? Remember that in the 1990s the most successful movies were more in the feel-good or melodrama category. There was starting to be an undercurrent of more non-traditional, complex filmmaking from up and coming directors like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers. But they weren’t yet racking up the major accolades as they would later on (i.e. Forrest Gump winning Best Picture and Best Director over Pulp Fiction).

The formula

Movies in the 1990s tended to be more focused on ‘Big Star + Big Budget + Feel-Good Story. Or Over-the-Top Melodrama = Money & Oscars.’ This led us to such curious decisions as the Forrest Gump-Pulp Fiction issue. As well as other gems like Shakespeare in Love winning Best Picture of Saving Private Ryan, Titanic winning Best Picture over…anything, and American Beauty winning Best Picture over The Sixth Sense.

So you couldn’t blame the Wachowskis, when trying to cast their ambitious new Matrix project, for trying to secure a big name for the lead role of Neo. Their first choice for the role, as one could surmise from the title of this article, was Will Smith. From a financial standpoint, Smith made sense as the new in the new movie. He was a well-established musician with a multitude of hit albums and singles. Plus he was the lead in the long-running hit series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He had also recently proven himself to be a capable leading man in the successful Independence Day and Men in Black films. Will Smith would certainly be able to carry The Matrix movie and bring viewers in.


But, Smith’s casting never came to pass. After meeting with the Wachowskis, Smith turned down the role of Neo. He didn’t understand the role and the overarching concept behind the movie. Much like how Sean Connery turned down the role of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. Smith turned down the starring role in The Matrix and opted instead to make Wild Wild West. Which spawned an incredibly catchy lead single that rose to #1 on the Billboard charts but bombed in every other area. It was a critical and commercial failure. Will Smith has gone on to admit that turning down The Matrix was his biggest professional regret.

With Smith out of the running for the part of Neo, then, the Wachowskis had to go back to the drawing board for the lead role. Other options included Nicolas Cage, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, and Johnny Depp. The role ultimately came down to Reeves (who was Warner Bros.’ first choice) barely edging out Depp (who the Wachowskis favoured).

The rest, as they say, as history. Keanu Reeves nailed the part of Neo. The Matrix became a critical and commercial success, and it spawned a successful set of sequels. Though not exactly as critically beloved as the original. Now, twenty years later, a fourth Matrix film is set to come out in the next year or so to continue on the original story.

But as I’ve done previously we need to take a look at the ripple effects of this decision. What if Smith hadn’t turned down the role? What happens to his career, Reeves’s career, and the Matrix movies as a whole?

The aftermath part one: Will Smith’s career and The Matrix trilogy

Will Smith is a pretty solid actor with a decent amount of range, as seen in films such as Seven Pounds and The Pursuit of Happyness. But, as a general rule, Will Smith tends to play Will Smith: a loud, entertaining, somewhat cocky lead with an undeniable swagger. This works fine when the movie calls for it, usually in an over-the-top and silly movie where such a character can fit into the milieu of the film, like in the aforementioned Independence Day and Men in Black films.

Yet, his overall “Will Smith-ness” can absolutely overwhelm a film. This trait draws attention away from the story and more towards how it’s a Will Smith movie (as what happened with the disappointing Suicide Squad). Had Smith been cast as Neo, it would have ruined The Matrix movie and tanked its franchise potential.

Toning it down

It’s much the same as when I discussed in a previous article how Al-Pacino as Han Solo would have undermined Star Wars because people would have seen it more as “that weird Pacino movie in space.” Had Smith been cast as Neo, one of two things would have happened. First, he would have brought his trademark over-the-top energy to the role. This would have either completely overpowered the movie or turned it into an unintentionally comedic film. Second, he would have toned down his performance to be more subtle. He did show he could do this later in his career, but he wasn’t exactly known for at the time. A more muted performance would have confused audiences who came to see a Will Smith movie but instead got a movie about living in a computer.

No matter which path Will Smith’s hypothetical performance would have taken. The end result would not have been positive for The Matrix and any possible trilogy. The Matrix mirrors Star Wars to some extent. Both movies have highly original and complicated concepts to many viewers; in essence, both movies actually were strengthened by having a cast that wasn’t packed with star power. By having a “no-name” cast, though The Matrix did include more well-known stars than Star Wars, audiences watching The Matrix were more able to focus on the story than on the people in it.

I think it’s fair to say that Will Smith’s career turned out fine even though he never accepted the role of Neo. But, had he accepted the role, The Matrix trilogy may not have turned out to be as profitable as it did. And then there’s the other side of the story…

The aftermath part two: What happens to Keanu Reeves?

Keanu Reeves, somewhat like Smith, is also an actor who generally plays a specific “type” in his roles. Reeves, though, has never really been an overpowering presence like Smith is. While some may describe his acting style as stiff or wooden, he is more of a “blank canvas” as it is. In other words, he is someone who is good at being “there” while the story unfolds. He is something of an avatar in which the audience can use to immerse themselves in the story at hand. This trait worked perfectly in a story like The Matrix. Focusing on the story allowed the mythology to fully develop, and for the movie to become one of the most influential in the last thirty years of American cinema.

What if Keanu Reeves never got the role of Neo?

I’ve already discussed how, with Will Smith in the lead role, The Matrix movie may have had middling success (or bombed entirely), and in doing so would have torpedoed the potential trilogy. But what would the effect had been on Keanu Reeves’s career had he not landed that pivotal role?

It’s not like Reeves was an unknown when he was cast in The Matrix. He was well-established for playing the role of Ted Logan in the Bill & Ted series. He had also proven himself as a solid leading man in movies such as Speed and Point Break. Had he not obtained the role of Neo in The Matrix, there’s a decent chance he still would have continued to land roles in Hollywood. But let’s not forget that, between the end of The Matrix trilogy and his re-emergence in the surprisingly successful John Wick franchise, Reeves mostly disappeared from major roles.

He didn’t stop acting, of course. But had he not taken on the role of Neo, would he have landed the John Wick franchise? Or would he have continued to play more Bill & Ted roles, ones where he was getting work but wasn’t getting cast in serious roles after not proving himself as a franchise player in The Matrix?

In the end, I believe Reeves would have turned out fine. And obviously, Will Smith’s career wasn’t harmed by not accepting the role of Neo. But had the roles been switched, it would have been The Matrix franchise that suffered. Had the first movie bombed, the franchise would have been DOA.

Thanks for reading our article about what would have happened if Will Smith became Neo in The Matrix. Do you agree or disagree with our points or have anything to add? If so, leave us a comment below.

Read what if Al Pacino was Han Solo HERE.

Check out IMDB information on The Matrix HERE.

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Movie News

9 Movie Remakes That Should Never Have Been Made

Aaron Phillips



Total Recall 2012 image
Columbia Pictures

Let’s have a look at nine movie releases remakes that definitely shouldn’t have never been made to seen the light of day.

It seems that in recent years, Hollywood have run out of original movie ideas. There has been remake after remake of films that were initially successful. As it often the case, film execs decide to cash in and remake these films for a new audience.

Now, sometimes this works. Oceans Eleven; The Jungle Book and Woman in Black are some examples that come to mind.

But sometimes it can go spectacularly wrong. This can be due to poor box office sales or being critically panned by the critics. Or it could just be the fact that the writing is utterly diabolical.

9. The Omen (2006)

If you’re going to have a pop at remaking a horror classic, then you have to bring something new to the table. The David Seltzer-penned 1976 original is a horror classic. Brooding and sinister, it doesn’t rely on shock scares. Instead, it uses atmosphere; some fantastic actors; a great script and an Oscar-winning musical score. This remake from 2006 didn’t live up to its predecessor’s brilliance. In fact, there’s no good reason why it was made. The plot follows almost the exact same story as the original film. A large majority of the scenes are practically identical, which seems pointless. You can’t blame the cast as there was some fine actors involved – Mia Farrow, Pete Postlethwaite and Michael Gambon to name a few. But their acting skills were not enough to make this movie good.

It adds nothing new to the original story; it’s just the same film with a different cast. It did make a healthy profit at the box office ($120 million), but the critic reviews were not good for the reasons I’ve mentioned. Fan-reviewed websites also have pretty poor reviews for it, so don’t just take my word for it.

8. Robin Hood (2018)

There have been a few Robin Hood movies over the years. Some are better than others, but this remake from 2018 is truly terrible. There are many factors involved and the two lead men are fine actors, but just not in this movie. Taron Egerton and Jamie Foxx have a great filmography, but their ham acting is just cringeworthy here. Blame should also go to the script, which is cheesier than a large cheese pudding. There is plenty of action sequences, but the costumes and dialogue are all anachronistic. This all adds to the clunkiness of the whole debacle. It was also a box office bomb and universally panned by critics. If you want a good Robin Hood movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, watch Robin Hood: Men in Tights from 1993.

7. Get Carter (2000)

The 1971 original is often hailed as one of the greatest movies of all time. A lot of that had to do with the charismatic Michael Caine as the lead character. A gritty Londoner out for revenge after the murder of his brother. In 2000 the movie was remade, but this time it’s set in Seattle with Sylvester Stallone as the lead character. The premise is still the same as the original film, but Sly Stallone kicking butts in Seattle just doesn’t have the same impact. Yes, there are some cool fight scenes and Sly does a good job on the acting front. But it doesn’t have the coolness or panache of the original. It just another Sly fronted action-thriller with little substance. Critics and audiences agreed, and it was universally panned. It also lost $40 million at the international box office.

Psycho (1998)

I’m going to open with the same point I made earlier in this article. If you are going to remake a classic movie, then be innovative and do something new. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 original is a masterpiece of creepy psychological filmmaking. Unfortunately, this 1998 remake failed to improve on any of that. Vince Vaughn played the Norman Bates character with Anne Heche playing Marion Crane. They do a fair job in portraying these iconic characters but bring nothing new to them. I guess seeing the film in colour helps bring a modern feel to it; especially as fake blood was used as opposed to chocolate sauce in the original. But interesting facts aside, it’s pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of the original.

Even the director Gus Van Sant admitted later it was an experiment to see if a shot-for-shot movie would work. It didn’t, as was proved by the critical and financial failure of the film. Then it barely made back half of its $60 million dollar budget. It was also given several Golden Raspberry awards for worst director and worst remake. This proves that you don’t mess around with Alfred Hitchcock.

5. Robocop (2014)

I remember walking into the cinema to watch this full of excitement. I left the cinema two hours later full of popcorn, but also full of disappointment. The original 1987 film is a cult classic. It’s mix of action; violence and satire made it one of the best movies of the decade. This remake from 2014 failed to hit any of those spots. Yes, it had some small elements of political satire and philosophical touches from the original, but little else. People with weak stomachs will applaud the lack of gore, but without it, the film seems too melodramatic. The updated effects make this remake look better, but the substance and excitement just aren’t there. Critics were overwhelming negative of the film too. There is also another reboot in the works. Why?!

4. The Fog (2005)

Enveloping fog has always been a good premise from a horror film. John Carpenter also thought so and made a creepy such film in 1980. The plot revolves around a mysterious fog that brings dead sailors to haunt and terrorize a Californian town. Sometimes the passage of time can allow for the special effects to improve, and it does here. But the gaps between the various grisly deaths are just dull. The characters are wooden, and you don’t end up caring when they meet their untimely demise. John Carpenter did produce this remake so it’s surprising there isn’t more depth to it. It did make a small profit at the box office but was universally panned by movie critics. If you do have to watch it just don’t engage your brain.

3. Total Recall (2012)

Another movie that tried to reboot an iconic sci-fi action film. 1990’s original was set on Mars and featured Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role. At the time, it was one of the most expensive movies ever made. This remake from 2012 had Colin Farrell in the lead role, supported by the brilliant Kate Beckinsale. This is another film that’s enjoyable to watch, just don’t try thinking whilst watching. There are plenty of spectacular action sequences that fizz, pop and bang, but don’t expect substance. It lacks any depth to the plot and misses the mark on the dry humour and character development that the original had. Pretty much all the movie critics agreed as well.

2. Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

Ah, Nicolas Cage. His movies in recent years have been a bit, well, hit and miss. And that’s being generous. It’s a shame as he is genuinely a great actor. But in recent years he’s picked terrible films to be in, and often dials in a performance. This remake from the Pang brothers Thai original from 1999 has none of the unique hallmarks of the original. For example, Nic Cage’s character is no longer deaf and mute like he was in the original. This seems odd as the brothers also directed this remake. A meandering plot; wooden performances and clunky cinematography make this a flop. It also received poor reviews and barely broke even at the box office.

1. Death Wish (2018)

The Charles Bronson 1974 original was a violent but successful vigilante movie. It also hit a chord with Americans at a time of increasing urban violence. It spawned several sequels, but this 2018 remake had Bruce Willis dishing out the justice. The original film had a point to make about taking the law into your own hands and did it with a visceral bang. The film was shocking at the time with its violence and rape scene, but it was relevant to explain how the lead character changed through the film. This remake doesn’t explore any of this.

It’s a brainless revenge movie that doesn’t have the same impact as the original and Bruce Willis dials in a lacklustre performance. It doesn’t add anything to the original film, and you’re left feeling empty after watching it. The whole thing seems pointless and morally bankrupt. In fact, it makes the 1974 original seem almost philosophical. It also received criticism for being released a few weeks after the Douglas High School shooting in Florida and for glorifying guns. It also barely made a profit at the box office and overwhelmingly received negative reviews.

And that’s our list of nine movie remakes that should never have been given the green light. Did we miss any? do you agree with us? Let us know in the comments below.

Read about what went wrong with the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street HERE.

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