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).
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.
No Time To Die – Review
No Time To Die is the 25th instalment in the official James Bond series. It’s the VERY long-awaited follow-up to 2015’s Spectre. The 6-year gap between the two films is only matched by the same gap between Timothy Dalton’s last outing in 1989’s Licence To Kill and Pierce Brosnan’s debut in 1995’s Goldeneye. Here’s our review of No Time To Die.
SPOILERS: If you’re reading this then you’ve probably seen the film, but if not there are spoilers ahead.
Of course, there are mitigating factors in that enormous gap. Namely COVID. Which made No Time To Die the first major film to delay its release due to the pandemic. Although, this film has had a difficult gestation irrespective of the global situation in the last 18 months. As soon as Spectre was released the speculation over Daniel Craig’s future in the role began. With him initially suggesting he would rather slash his own wrists than play the iconic spy again. He did a mea culpa on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show in August 2017, where he confirmed he would appear as Bond for a fifth and final time. The original director and writer, Danny Boyle and John Hodge, left the project a year later over creative differences. Cory Joji Fukunaga took over as director. While Bond script veterans Robert Wade and Neil Purvis took charge of the screenplay – with a sprinkling of magic from Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Originally slated for release in April 2020, at long last, we finally get to see Daniel Craig’s denouement as 007. His portrayal of Bond has been very much in keeping with the character of Ian Fleming’s original novels. His performances have certainly followed the dramatic lineage of Sean Connery and Timothy Dalton. Rather than the lighter portrayals by Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. Yet his Bond has displayed a vulnerability only really demonstrated with any plausibility by George Lazenby in his solitary outing as 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
The deference to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is presented in stark relief throughout this 2h43min epic. Making this the longest Bond film in the series. As this was the first film I’ve seen at the cinema since before the pandemic, I was already excited before I even sat down. As a massive James Bond fan as well, I was close to apoplexy! I felt a tangible shiver go down my spine as the iconic gun barrel sequence appeared before we see James cruising around Italy in the classic DB5 with Madeleine Swann at his side. This anticipation was clearly felt by other cinema-goers. They have made No Time To Die break the UK box office record for the biggest opening weekend. It took almost £26m, breaking the record previously held by Skyfall.
I’m not going to spoil the plot for those who’ve not seen it. I had made a conscious decision to avoid spoilers before I went.
A step up?
This film is another shot in the arm for those who see Craig as the definitive Bond. This was aided by a refocusing of the Bond canon after the main tropes of the series were stretched to breaking point by the invisible cars and melting ice palaces of Die Another Day. And then stretched still further by Madonna’s cameo as a fencing instructor. Daniel Craig was given leeway to truly regenerate James Bond for the 21st Century. The stripped-back nature of Casino Royale, without most of the supporting characters that have been a staple of the series like Q and Moneypenny. Gave him licence (pardon the pun) to explore the deepest and darkest recesses of the Bond psyche. Some well-drawn female leads and villains really allowed Craig’s Bond to spar with them with depth and genuine emotion.
That exploration continues and grows in No Time To Die. We get to see an ageing, truly world-weary Bond, whose past he appears unable to escape. This leaves him in a state of almost constant angst. Paradoxically though, we also see him truly relaxed at times. In a way I can’t recall ever seeing James Bond in any of his previous cinematic outings.
The issue with that exploration is that a number of characters then have their screen time cut. Moneypenny is reduced to little more than a cameo. And Remi Malek’s Safin is almost secondary as he features in the opening moments as his story is told, but then disappears for what seemed like an eternity. He of course reappears but he almost seems a mild irritation within the plot and merely a conduit to allow us to see the climax of Daniel Craig’s Bond era. It’s a disappointing underuse of a terrific actor. One with a captivating screen presence, who could have been one of the most menacing Bond villains of all time. That said, the influence of his dastardly but highly sophisticated plan is felt by all of the main protagonists. Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld continues to wreak his havoc with malevolent glee from his cell. He again revels in the chaos of his twisted sibling rivalry with Bond.
Lea Seydoux is wonderful again as Dr Madeleine Swann, picking up where she left off in Spectre and giving Bond as good as he gets in every way imaginable.
There are new characters who definitely cut through. Ana De Armas is utterly charming in her relatively brief time on-screen as Paloma, while Lashana Lynch takes no nonsense from Bond as Nomi. She also gives us a potential indicator as to the future direction of the franchise. Which has been the subject of much discussion in all quarters. That debate has even made its way into the political sphere with even Boris Johnson weighing in on what gender the next actor to play 007 should be.
Hans Zimmer’s score is classic Hans Zimmer, adding power and bombast to the usual mix of stunning scenery and brilliantly choreographed stunts. He brilliantly weaves nods to previous entries in the Bond musical tapestry throughout his score. While his cues are always thunderous, they never overpower the action on screen, but do add a sonic rumble that I don’t think has been heard in a Bond score for quite some time. I found Fukunaga’s direction a bit mixed, with some of the cinematography unnecessarily showy. Some of the tracking shots almost gave me motion sickness while some (admittedly beautifully composed) shots of the scenery seemed to have made the edit purely so as whoever the drone operator was could demonstrate their skills.
The film is much too long, although at no point did I check my watch. It’s not that any of the plot points are superfluous, more that the pacing is a little slow in places. Some of the dialogue feels cliched and clunky, making what is a great story feel a tad generic. Which doesn’t do anyone justice. However, there were some excellent jokes, and I laughed out loud several times. You don’t have to be a 007 super fan to get some of the self-referential humour that they seem to enjoy sprinkling throughout the film.
Billie Eilish’s theme song is a worthy addition to the collection and certainly sits comfortably within the top half of the ‘Bond Theme Chart’. It’s definitely more memorable and evocative than Sam Smith’s ‘Writing On The Wall’ for Spectre. Her voice trembles at times as you can almost feel she recognises the significance of singing the theme for Daniel Craig’s final appearance in the franchise.
It was also very pleasing to see that this film has moved with the times and reflects the world of 2021 with its portrayal of women. Every single female character had a genuine purpose and important role within the plot. While of course, the female actors playing those roles are all irrefutably glamorous and attractive. There was genuine respect and no objectification of women.
I came out of the screening with mixed emotions. Glad to be back in the cinema on one hand, sad that Daniel Craig’s stint ordering Martini’s was over on the other. I was pleased that such a good climax had been created to bring this era of Bond to a close, and all its story arcs had been brought to conclusions. I’m also excited and apprehensive in equal measure for the future of such an iconic film series. But I was disappointed with some of the characters not getting the necessary screen-time to truly develop their characters. Surprisingly, I was almost tearful at the final few moments, especially as the credits rolled.
Overall, this is a loving homage to the James Bond series, past and present. It’s a solid if unspectacular film in its own right, but the performances of Daniel Craig and Lea Seydoux, as well as the Bond history it wraps itself in, elevate it beyond that.
It’s not Craig’s best Bond film, as Skyfall is almost untouchable in my opinion, but it does bring closure to his tenure in the tuxedo in a manner that should please Bond fans across the board. It also tantalises us as to what the 6th age of Bond will look like. Let the intense speculation begin!
CULTURE CROSSING SCORE 7/10
Thank you for reading our review of James Bond No Time To Die. Do you agree or disagree with our points or have anything to add? If so, leave us a comment below.
Check out who we think could be the next James Bond and why HERE.
Read IMDB information about No Time To Die HERE.
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