The Matrix Reloaded vs. Tenet – Highway Chase

IT’S MATRIX RESURRECTIONS WEEK Y’ALL!!!!!

This is my Star Wars or Star Trek or whatever sci-fi franchise have you. Instead of lightsabers and spaceships, it’s nothing but dope shades, high-flying kung fu, and Rage Against the Machine babyyyyy. I’m celebrating the return of a monumental franchise by taking a misty-eyed look back on all of my favorite things from The Matrix trilogy. First up, The Matrix Reloaded’s bonkers highway chase.

It’s such a ballsy set-piece 18 years later that I found myself wondering, “why hasn’t anything else come close?” But something has come close, or at least aspired to those ridiculous live-action heights: Tenet’s own forward-reverse highway chase.

I’m gonna have a little fun here by pitting the two against each other in a comparison game. Matrix Reloaded vs. Tenet. The Wachowskis vs. one Christopher Nolan. Who will win? Buckle up.

1. The Vehicles

Can’t have a breakneck chase without ‘em. So let’s run down the vehicle inventory. Reloaded’s got the Cadillac CTS and the Escalade (the popularity of these bad boys in the early 2000s LEMME TELL YOU) as the main hero/villain cars. Secondary, you’ve got Trinity’s Ducati 998 when the chase pivots, followed by Niobe’s sweet Pontiac Firebird, and then there’s a buncha lame Chevrolet cop cars.

Tenet flexes like crazy here that it’s not even fair on this side of the 21st century: John David Washington and Robert Pattinson roll up in a BMW 5 Series. Kenneth Branagh pulls up in an Audi Q7 then does a switcheroo with a Mercedes Bens S-Class. The mini-heist that happens in the sequence involves 2 Land Rovers, and the car that reverse-flips in the ensuing chase is a slick Saab 9-5. All the decadence and espionage on display, you half-expect an Aston Martin in the middle of it. Then a Subaru WRX rolls up straight outta Fast and the Furious.

Okay, Nolan. You get the first point.

2. The Highway

This one’s a game of who had the bigger clout at Warner Bros studio. Nolan and crew secured themselves an actual highway to shoot on for 3 weeks – Laagna Tee highway in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. I can only imagine the sheer hell that made out of Tallinn’s roadways for that time period. I don’t know who else can say that they did this.

The Wachowskis ran into a similar problem while filming Reloaded in 2001. What working highway would allow a studio to use as a bumbling movie set? The nightmare that would make of any city’s populace! The studio then elected to build a mile and a half highway as a mighty workaround. (If you can’t find it, build it!) It’s a level of filmmaking that’s been tossed away in favor of CGI and overworked visual effects houses. Every time I remember the Wachowskis and their build crews went to this level of practicality for Reloaded, I say to myself “bravo.”

The Wachowskis win this one, hands down.

3. Stunts and CGI Mayhem

And it’s what the Wachowskis were able to do with their own highway at their disposal – stage vehicular warfare like CRAZY. Cars do side flips, front flips, swerve and nearly cut into each other. This is just going in the one direction, mind you. It flips when Trinity is on the bike, somehow pulling more white-knuckle hairpin turns. The practical and visual effects are so seamlessly rendered that even when it does go full CG – whether it’s the agent leaping off the hood of a car like a spring board, or 2 semis ramming full speed that ends in a clutch-save by Neo – you don’t lose the speed, the momentum, nor the excitement. It’s Mad Max by way of The Matrix.

4. But That Reverse-Flip Tho

However, Tenet’s stunts are more practically driven; it harkens back to the basics of car chases going all the way back to Bullitt – pedal to the metal in clear and crisp visuals. There’s obviously some insanity at work here, with a wall of oversized vehicles capsizing on one armored truck to pull off a heist job. And then there’s the inverted chase afterward, something I’ve NEVER seen before on screen. As much as I love how batshit Reloaded’s highway sequence gets, there’s something satisfying about Tenet’s pristine staging. Reloaded takes to the sky, while Tenet stays refreshingly down to earth. Tenet scores points here too.

5. Cinematography

Ooooo now we’re in it. Bill Pope was the DP for the Matrix trilogy, while Hoyte van Hoytema shot every Christopher Nolan film post-Dark Knight trilogy. Thing is, I’m a huge fan of both cinematographers. I love their eyes and visual instincts towards the clean and classical; they might run with a particular color scheme for the “look” of their respective movies, but that doesn’t mean other colors get washed out in the process. (Take notes, Marvel Studios!) There’s no weird framing off to the side to toy with the viewer’s eye, nor do they dare to mess with the steadiness of the frame to make it “raw and gritty.” Pope and Hoytema’s instincts are on the same page; if they can capture the action front and center, they will. Because they know that if you keep the camera steady enough, our eyes will do the three-dimensional work, no 3D glasses needed.

It’s tough but I’m giving the edge to… Hoytema. Reloaded might be the one with Neo flying across the stratosphere, but Tenet’s visuals remain out-of-this-world to me. Because of how utterly real it all feels. The fact that this was shot on a working highway works in Tenet’s favor endlessly. If Hoytema could shoot my daily and lifeless commute, maybe I’d enjoy driving again.

6. The Carrie-Anne Moss Factor

Okay but which one of these has Carrie-Anne Moss riding a motorcycle? If you’ll allow me to thirst for a bit, Reloaded easily scores points for this alone. Moss forever remains a badass because she did a great deal of the maneuvering herself. That’s her in closeups and in them gloriously tight fits. Not that we needed another bullet point after the first movie, but the highway chase too is a critical data point that Trinity is up there with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as iconic boundary-pushing heroines. Lesbians win here too.

7. Elizabeth Debicki’s Height

HOWEVER, there’s Elizabeth Debicki to consider. (Didn’t forget about you, babe. Never will.) Full disclosure, I have a thing for tall women. Debicki stands at a resounding 6’ 3” so um… I win 😍

The maddening part at times is when she has to work with self-conscious directors or actors that she’s forced to slouch her frame so the males can look taller. Fortunately, she gets to be her towering self in Tenet, so my compliments to director Nolan. Towards the end of the highway chase, Debicki (who’s hands are tied) uses her extremely long legs to reach from the backseat to the door lock in the driver’s seat. Elizabeth Debicki as big Resident Evil lady when?

8. Best Bros

Trinity and Morpheus are such a formidable action pairing all throughout the chase that they don’t need to talk things through, they just do what needs to be done. Respectfully, that sounds like a boring car to be in. No hate here; they’d obviously get the job done with style and latex to spare. But being in The Protagonist’s and Neil’s BFF beamer, ah, that’s where I wanna be. There’s such a livewire energy between John David Washington and Robert Pattinson; they’re good at what they do, truly dapper and professional, but they’re not above screaming “oh shit!” when shit goes down. I’d like to imagine myself as an action hero straight outta The Matrix, but I’m so much closer to Washington’s and Pattinson’s bro-level energy. It’s all G; Trinity and Morpheus have their third in the car. I’ll be Neil and the Protagonist’s “key-maker.”

9. Anime

Reloaded is the one that goes full Anime so there’s no contest here. I mean Trin, Morpheus, and the Key-maker are being chased by twins who can phase through objects; agents are hot on their tail jumping off cars; Morpheus wields a katana and then kung fu fights an agent atop a speeding semi. Christopher Nolan would NEVER. Hell, Reloaded isn’t even the most Anime of The Matrix trilogy. Still, it’s wild-out symphony on the highway is a damn good appetizer for the Dragon Ball Z-level insanity of Revolutions.

10. The AUDACITY

Who gets away with pitching these sequences is what I wanna know. When studios greenlight an idea, they go through everything beat by beat, line by line. This means that at some point, someone probably told the Wachowskis and Nolan that this can’t be done and “hey let’s rewrite something achievable in camera,” etc. And this is what I love about movie-making – it’s a constant battle between imagination and reality, between artist and executive.

Reloaded easily bests Tenet here for being the conversation in the studio or in the meeting that executives probably tried to talk down, but the idea eventually won out in the end. Of course, BOTH Reloaded and Tenet come with the clout of their brainchild beforehand, otherwise there wouldn’t have been a conversation to begin with. The Wachowskis blew all expectations out of the water when The Matrix hit big and became WB’s biggest success story at that point in time. Same goes with Nolan and the way his Dark Knight trilogy established the rulebook of modern superhero cinema. Wachowskis and Nolan were able to pull off the stunning practicality of their movies respectively because of their success with the studio prior. This, then, could really go either way. I’m giving this one to Reloaded simply because the Wachowski’s originality blazed a trail in Hollywood (whereas Nolan was adapting/rebooting an existing property) to the point that WB gave them the keys to the studio, built them a highway, and procured as many VFX artists as they needed.

So, who wins? Who’s the victor here?

It’s us. You and me, the audience. We win every goddamn time.

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