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ACTION WOMAN: SO YOU WANNA BE A - SUPER HEROINE?; Carrie-Anne Moss made Trinity's acrobatic kung fu stunts look easy in The Matrix ReloadedTM. But even she broke a leg doing them - so how would M Celebs' Anne-Celine Jaeger get on?

Byline: Anne-Celine Jaeger

I've been dreaming of being a kick-ass action hero ever since I saw Charlie's Angels the first time around. Add to that a skintight leather outfit and the chance to cartwheel across walls, and I'm frothing at the mouth with anticipation. And so it happens that I find myself, at the crack of dawn one drizzly autumn morning, just north of London, at the Bovingdon aerodrome. Given that superstars Carrie-Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves did all their training in an aeroplane hangar in Santa Monica, California, during a cold and rainy winter, I feel I'm getting close to the real thing. Bovingdon doesn't have quite the same ring as Santa Monica, but who's complaining?

Not so basic training

Expecting a bit of A-list trailer treatment upon arrival, I'm surprised to find myself being chased around the aerodrome before I can say `make mine an Atkins Diet lunch'. But when Therese Donnelly, 41, tells you to `do a few laps to warm up', you tend to take notice. The kung fu master and member of the British Stunt Register was in charge of whipping Milla Jovovich into shape for her backbreaking role in The Fifth Element.

But I'm getting a pretty good deal. Carrie-Anne Moss had to train up to seven hours a day over several months with The Matrix Reloaded's fight choreographer, Yuen Wo Ping, before she was allowed to slip into her PVC catsuit. I only have to make it to lunch.

Did I say `only'? Therese has me doing jabs, crosses, hooks, scorpion kicks (a move especially designed for Trinity), crescent kicks, pubus (the basic kung fu crouching stance), handstands, Arab springs, knee tucks, flying forward rolls, trampoline jumps... And she watches my every move like a hawk, making sure my fight technique looks authentic: `Eyes to the camera! Look fierce, scary! I need to see tension in those arms. You won't stop anyone with that block!'

Just when I think I can't take any more, I'm called over to prepare for my first stunt of the day - a classic scene from The Matrix Reloaded involving wires and tricky camera work to create the revolutionary visual effect referred to as `Bullet Time'. I need to come crashing out of a high-rise window backwards and shoot up at agents while accelerating towards the ground. Simple really.

Fly-by shooting

If it weren't for the thrill of having a legitimate reason to get into black leather, I'd probably be terrified by now. But thankfully, the act of zipping up my combat gear is rather soothing, and makes me feel worthy of helping Neo (Keanu Reeves) save the city of Zion from extinction, just like in the film.

Thanks to stunt co-ordinator Morgan Johnson, 33, who has worked on films such as Gladiator and Star Wars: Episode I, the set is already rigged up when I get to the high-rise. A pulley system is in place, as are the arsenal of weapons I am to use, and two stuntmen are in position on the ground to make sure nothing goes wrong once I'm airborne. All that remains for me to do is step into the hip harness - which is a bit like being hugged by a nutcracker - and have wires strapped to it so I can fall through the sky safely.

With the harness giving me as much leeway as a cast-iron chastity belt, I climb up the ladder to a window ledge on the third floor. Yes, I know Trinity was on the hundred and whatever-th floor in the movie, but trust me, being miles off the ground secured only by a couple of transparent wires doesn't come naturally to most humans. Especially not when you're falling away from a building at a 90-degree angle, shooting Uzis and MP5 guns skywards and trying to look menacing rather than terrified. All with no safety mats to cushion your fall.

`Send in the agents,' I think as soon as I start trusting the wires, `I want to use-y my Uzi!' But they'd better come quickly - I can't hold this position too long, what with the heavy guns, the blood rushing to my head, and my legs feeling like they're about to be severed by the harness.

The two stuntmen (including James Bond's stunt double, James Grogan), a stunt co-ordinator, crouching tiger Therese and the special effects guy are all staring up at me, expecting me to nail the stunt. I have to grin and blast it.

I'm absolutely exhausted - I'm beginning to understand why Keanu Reeves spent most of his spare time on set soaking in tubs full of ice - and luckily I get a chance to rest while the special effects guy smears butter into the barrel of my guns to help the propane gas and oxygen create a bigger fire-blast. Just as I'm getting a bit cocky and start shouting, `Here, take this, butter ball!' to the imaginary enemy, the ropes jolt and I drop a couple of inches. `Aarrgh,' I screech, picturing myself as a pancake on the ground.

`Take her down,' says Morgan calmly to the rest of the stunt team. I remember Carrie-Anne Moss broke her leg on set following a wire incident and feel like yelping again. But within seconds I'm safely on the ground. `The rope gave a bit of slack,' says Morgan, `Nothing to be worried about, but let's break for lunch.'

Airborne action

Getting back into the harness after lunch is even more painful, as I now have a double bacon cheeseburger and chips to contend with. Morgan had warned me professional stuntmen tend to hover around the salad bar when they've got upside-down work coming up, but given that it could be my last meal ever, I ignored his advice.

The next stunt is a flying back-flip off a motorbike, so the odds for rehashed bacon bits are fairly high. As soon as I'm strapped into the rig from which I'll be hanging to do the stunt, Therese's gruelling warm- up starts to make sense. I'm told to do backward rolls, forward rolls and knee tucks, this time all in mid-air, which is near impossible unless you have abs of steel (and remember, mine at this point are abs of cheese). Try as I might to launch myself backwards in a straight line off the bike, like Trinity does in the movie, I get stuck halfway, upside-down and staring at concrete. When you're in that position, even the chastity belt-style harness starts to feel loose.

`Keep your body tension,' shouts Morgan, before I flip round like a limp ragdoll. Luckily, thanks to angles and camera positioning, we finally manage to get a shot of me coming off the bike looking strong and determined.

Defying gravity

To really get into the spirit of The Matrix Reloaded, where gravity takes on a whole new dimension, Morgan wants me running along walls and kicking agents mid-air. For this we move to a different rig, set up inside a building. This time, I'm pulled up by the two stuntmen, until I'm hanging in mid- air. It's an incredibly powerful feeling to be hovering above the enemy, poised to do a flying kick - I just hope I don't disfigure him, as he's about to head to Morocco to be Colin Farrell's stunt double in Alexander.

Once I prove I'm not a danger to myself or others, I graduate from two supporting wires to one, which supposedly will allow me to run horizontally. Morgan lifts me until I'm perpendicular to the wall, while another stuntman pulls the rope to keep me level. The stunt looks easy enough in the film, but once you're in position, it's near impossible to stay perpendicular. You need more tension than a broomstick and it's hard to keep your feet on the wall when gravity wants them elsewhere. Regardless, Morgan passes me a long wooden pole with which I'm to fend off agents. Only now do I start getting a taste of what it's like to be like a movie superheroine. Fear has long been replaced by adrenaline, agents are dropping like flies and I'm running along walls head to foot in black leather. Amazing.

Die another day

Having introduced me to the ins and ouches of wire-work, Morgan wants to end the day with a bang, quite literally, by recreating the scene where Trinity lands in a kung fu pubu stance in front of a mammoth blast.

The special effects team are laying down hi-explosive detonating cord, mixing petrol and diesel together and setting up a good dozen fire extinguishers. I'm positioned on a spot where it's safe for me to stand, without being blasted out of my boots, but still close enough to look like I'm part of the explosion. Regardless of calculations, the spot seems rather close to me, especially since everyone else has changed into flame-retardant boiler suits and I'm still in leather. `Watch that flag,' I'm instructed. `We'll only detonate if it's still or blowing away from you. Count down from three.'

When I ask whether we can go through a practice drill, so I can see from a distance what to expect, I'm told it would be a waste of explosives. But if it goes wrong, I'm thinking, wouldn't that be a waste of a journalist? Morgan comes over to cover my face in Zel-Jel, a thick brown liquid used in stunts to fend off heat from fires and explosions. He senses I'm tense with fear and says, `Look, if it all goes horribly wrong, I'll be right here with the fire extinguisher, before you hit the floor.' And that's meant to make me feel better?

`Everyone in position,' says Morgan. I look back at the stunt team. They seem miles away, either in fire suits or hugging fire extinguishers, all better equipped than me. Reluctantly I get into my pubu stance on the marked spot and wait for the countdown. I'm sure the flag is blowing towards me... `Three, two, one...' Boom! My entire spectrum of vision is engulfed in a big fireball and I am hit by a wall of heat. I'm still in pubu stance. At least I think I am. I don't see Morgan rushing towards me, so I must be all right. As the ball of fire transforms into a huge ring of black smoke, the stunt team start clapping, `Well done. You did it. You didn't flinch an inch.'

As soon as I'm out of my superhero suit, the adrenaline that's been shooting through my body all day turns to piranha-like pain. My ribs feel like they've been battered with a baseball bat and I immediately lose the ability to move my body without looking like an invalid. The pain is all worth it, I'm thinking, but sadly, this is where my likeness with Carrie-Anne Moss ends. Whereas she had her sports masseuse on set at all times to knead her back into shape, I have to make do with a little bit of Radox.

The Matrix Reloaded is out to rent and buy on DVD and VHS from 10 October

Broken bones

Kiefer Sutherland

The 24 star injured his kneecap while leaving his trailer, prompting a hastily written plane crash scene to explain his limp. Kiefer, 36, has had his fair share of breaks over the years, having broken every finger riding rodeo bulls. As you do.

Orlando Bloom

The `accident prone' elfin star of Lord Of The Rings broke a rib falling off a horse while filming scenes as Legolas but this isn't the first snap for the 26-year-old. He's also broken his back, more ribs, his nose, both his legs, his arm, wrist, a finger, a toe and cracked his skull three times.

Cameron Diaz

She's snagged Justin Timberlake but Cameron, 31, is not always so lucky. She broke a wrist training for the film Mortal Kombat and had to bow out. The self-confessed klutz recently busted her nose while surfing in Hawaii with JT, then a week later injured her foot.

Halle Berry

Halle broke her right arm shooting physically demanding scenes for Gothika with Robert Downey Jr earlier this year and was rushed to hospital. The 34-year-old also injured her eye filming an action sequence for Bond film Die Another Day.

CAPTION(S):

Not so easy rider: Anne-Celine realises abs of steel are handy for nailing a flying back-flip off a motorcycle Photographs: Neil Haynes. Pictures: Alpha/Kudospix/Bigpicturesphoto.com
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 5, 2003
Words:2076
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