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What if Will Smith was Neo in The Matrix?

Gordon Lipton

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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.

Regret

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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The 9 Greatest Spoof Movies Ever

Aaron Phillips

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This is Spinal Tap image
Embassy Pictures

There have been so many great spoof movies over the past four decades. So, sit back and buckle up as we countdown the nine greatest spoof movies of all time. And “don’t call me Shirley”.

9. Team America: World Police

Ok, so it’s all-puppet action as opposed to real-life actors, but it’s still up there. Written by the guys behind South Park, it parodies an American counter-terrorism force as they take on global terrorists. As you would expect, there are some cracking scenes throughout the movie. Kim Jong-il singing about being “so roney, so roney” is a highlight that isn’t easily forgotten. You also have to feel sorry for poor old Matt Damon. Although he’s had a glittering film career it’s still hard not to say “Matt Damon” in that monotone way every time you see him on screen. According to writers Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Damon’s puppet looked so vacant that they decided to make his character only able to say his name. Poor Matt. Add in some fantastic one-liners, over-the-top violence and sex scenes with puppets, you have a great film that will make you laugh, and cringe.

8. Blazing Saddles

Mel Brooks is the king of spoof and parody. He’s directed and written many a great spoof over the years, but Blazing Saddles was only his third movie in the director’s chair. This 1974 offering takes the proverbial from all the great western movies from the 40s and 50s. The film throws joke after joke at you, along with anachronisms aplenty. Lead actors Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little also deliver comedic gold performances that help make this film great. Brooks also does a clever job of dealing with racism throughout the movie; something that hadn’t really been done before. One of those moments is where Wilder and Little confront two Klan characters, before stealing their white gowns. Clever, and poignant. It’s also interesting to note that execs wanted to pull the plug before release, but soon realised they got it wrong. It was a financial success and has firmly sealed its place in history as an iconic piece of filmmaking. Not only that, but it’s also still rated very highly on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb today. Just goes to show that a classic stands the test of time.

7. Spaceballs

Yep, our old friend Mel Brooks features again in the director’s chair. This time he delves into the world of sci-fi; more specifically, Star Wars. Although it only made a small profit at the time, it’s gone on to become a cult classic and holds a fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. The key to its success is it’s genuinely funny. The jokes are good enough to make you belly laugh. And the characters are so close to those on Star Wars, it’s amazing George Lucas gave his blessing for it to be made at all. He even went a step further and sent Mel Brooks a note to say he almost fell apart laughing through it. Praise indeed. Brooks’ other golden touch was casting Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet. I think you’ll struggle to find a funnier bad guy. There are also rumours of a sequel, predicted in the film itself as ‘The search for more Money’, although nothing has been greenlit at the moment. We live in hope.

6. Scary Movie

Ok, so there have been five films in the Scary Movie franchise but the first one from 2000 makes our list of spoof movies. Written by Shawn and Marlon Wayans and directed by Keenan Ivory Wayans, it’s definitely a family affair. Although later films parody a wide range of films, this one heavily relies on Scream, and I Know What You Did Last Summer. This works in the film’s favour as you don’t spend the entire movie wondering what film they’re parodying for each joke. You know that Ghostface from Scream is going to feature a lot. And he does. The scene where he gets stoned with a bunch of guys and prank calls people is still funny today. The later films just feel like a collection of forced jokes as they ran out of horror movies to parody. Although it received mixed reviews, it made a monumental profit at the box office.

5. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad

No spoof movies list would be complete without at least one that features the brilliant Leslie Nielson. The Naked Gun, released in 1988, was based on the short-lived TV series from 1982. Created by the legend of deadpan comedy David Zucker, it follows Lt Frank Drebin on his escapades. The original Police Squad series was a spoof of 60s police dramas; particularly M Squad, and The Naked Gun follows the same theme. Plus, it ends with one of the best death scenes in film history with Nielson waving his arms and calmly addressing the crowd with “nothing to see here”. With superb writing and acting, The Naked Gun was released to critical acclaim. It also made a healthy profit at the box office and is often listed as one the greatest comedy films ever made.

4. Hot Shots!

Released in 1991 and directed by Jim Abrahams, Hot Shots! keeps things simple by purely being a spoof of Top Gun. And a very good one it is too. Not only is the writing funny and sharp, but it also has a fantastic cast. Playing the lead roles are Charlie Sheen and Cary Elwes as the two feuding pilots. Both actors are masters of comedic timing and they deliver their lines with razorlike sharpness. The plot revolves around a mission to Iraq, with the added love triangle involving Sheen and Elwes’ characters and a female therapist. This sub-plot lends itself to some genuinely hilarious scenes between the two actors. Credit also has to go to the fantastic Lloyd Bridges. He plays a commander who seems to have had every part of his body replaced due to it being blown off in various battles. His lines in the movie are comedy gold. A great film that hits all its spoof targets with absolute aplomb.

3. Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Written and performed by legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python, Life of Brian had a controversial start. Being a satire of Jesus’ life was always going to cause some angst among some religious communities. In fact, some countries including Ireland and Norway banned it from being shown on release. In some cases that ban the latest decades. Life of Brian is often quoted as one of the greatest comedy films ever made. The writing is as good as you would expect from the Monty Python crew, and the jokes keep coming all the way through. Who can forget the immortal line, “he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”. It made a modest box office profit at release but has gone on to earn iconic status. Rotten Tomatoes have it as a 95% certified fresh rating and it’s still raved about today.

2. This is Spinal Tap

This is the film that kicked off a new genre of filmmaking – the mockumentary. Parodying band biopics from the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, it follows fictional band Spinal Tap on their debut American tour. If you’ve ever played in a band – as I do – so much of what’s in this film is true. I can personally attest to getting lost in venues and playing shows where no one turns up. Director Rob Reiner was sending up the pretensions of rock and roll bands and he nailed it. What’s also interesting is the majority of the dialogue throughout the film is improvised. Credit to the actors for pulling off some truly iconic lines. Whether it’s the Stonehenge scene or the legendary amp up to eleven scene, this film has embedded itself in our culture forever. It was only a modest success when it was first released, but its impact has left a lasting impression.

1. Airplane!

Well, we’ve flown; shot and rode our way to number one on our list of spoof movies. Once again, we arrive at a film directed by the dream team of the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams. Loosely based on air disaster movies of the 50s and 60s, it follows a plane whose crew are taken out with a sickness bug. Cue disgraced former pilot Ted Striker to save the day. Released in 1980, this was the film that set Leslie Nielson on the path of spoof comedy. He only has a fairly minor role as the doctor, but he delivers some of the best lines in the movie. ‘I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley’, is iconic. Lloyd Bridges also features as the man on the ground at air traffic control and turns in a chaotic but brilliant performance. Upon release, it made a whopping $168 million dollars at the box office and received critical acclaim. It’s also certified fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, along with ranking as one of the best on IMDb. It’s one of those films that make you cry with laughter thanks to clever writing and some fantastic performances. A timeless classic.


That’s our list of the nine greatest spoof movies. Did we miss any? Which is your favourite? Let us know in the comments below.


Read about movie remakes that should never have happened HERE.

Read IMDb information about Airplane! HERE.

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