Pre-'Matrix' Attempts at Bullet-Time, We Salute You
As The Matrix returns to our cultural landscape thanks to Owen Wilson's recent cinematic masterpiece, Bliss:
Oh, yeah, and also that new Matrix movie, we guess. We thought it would be a good idea to stylishly dodge bullets down memory lane and salute those brave souls that tried to do similar stuff prior to the Wachowski's magnum opus.
Sure, the '60s Speed Racer anime had some bullet-time in its opening, but you were truly ahead of your time, Kill and Kill Again.
First, some disclaimers: considering The Matrix was the first movie to officially do it at such technical heights, the fact that the following examples "are not really bullet-time" is not an objection, but literally our main point. Similarly, we're using the term loosely as even the co-creator of the technique claimed to be inspired by movies that didn't have 'official' bullet-time (e.g., Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 classic, Akira). What we are saluting today, then, are either examples of the dodging bullets in super slow-mo or technical attempts at what The Matrix would later pull off so well.
(So, no, we're not talking about Wing Commander because it came out the same month as The Matrix, something I obviously did not find out, like, yesterday.)
Prior to Keanu limboing around busted caps, there were some efforts in the realm of music videos and commercials. For example, this Accept video (which merely proves that hair metal needed to be dethroned by grunge), or this one by The Rolling Stones, directed by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind's Michel Gondry (and itself also explicitly praised by The Matrix's VFX-team). Yet if one piece deserves attention here, it is this wonderful Smirnoff commercial from 1996, three years before Trinity kicked our hearts in the ass.
… Listening to the awfully bland 90's techno, we retract the 'wonderful' adjective.
On the movie front, a few examples are also worth mentioning: for instance, this silly scene from 1994's The Shadow or that one from the movie that made Friends' Joey an absolute movie star. One often neglected scene comes from the first Blade, an objectively kick-ass movie, to be sure.
Seriously, if you saw this in 1998, then The Matrix looked as the culmination of an ongoing trend instead of as a rupture with what came before.
So no snarky remarks here; Blade would not like it. Finally, no comment on pre-The Matrix examples of bullet-time would be complete without mentioning John Woo, an all-time master of hyper-stylized gun-fu. First, because we can joke about the ridiculousness that is Face-Off all day, yet it is an amazing cult movie that, yes, also had slo-mo bullets awesomely going off guns, in case you forgot. But more importantly, because he had already mastered the whole 'slow-motion shots surrounding violent chaos' thing by the late-'80s and early-'90s.
John Woo's Hong Kong movies are a well-known precedent for The Matrix, yet we would like to offer one particular example of what this actually means. It comes from one of his masterpieces, 1992's Hard Boiled (by the way, note that 1992 was a damn good year for the slow-mo bullets and Chow Yun-fat combo). Specifically in Hard Boiled, then, see the way the shot is framed, and the camera moves around that exploding thingie at 14:07.
Keanu wishes his bullet-dodging were as cool as Chow Yun-fat's.
Some of you will love this example; some of you will not (and thus be wrong). But two final points can be made around this issue: first, go watch Hard Boiled; and second, we tricked you; the second point is just to go watch Hard Boiled again. There is no scenario in which it isn't time well spent.
John Woo's Hard Boiled: we salute you.
Top Image: Warner Bros. Pictures