Loved the idea of a sequel to The Matrix, hated the hit-and-miss execution. Loved the stunts, hated the deep-dish speechifying — Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) sounds like James Earl Jones hawking Verizon. Loved how those cyberpunk hotties Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) wanted to get it on, hated how unsexy it was when they did. Loved the Oracle, hated the Architect — the windbag who calls cool-dude messiah Neo "the eventuality of a systemic anomaly." Keanu's brow furrows unphotogenically as he chews on that one.
And so it goes. If you belong to the church of the Matrix, then I'm a heretic. But neglecting the faults of The Matrix Reloaded blinds you to the film's very real triumphs. Make no mistake: Eyes will pop, nerves will jangle, thoughts will be provoked and other summer blockbusters will shrink in comparison. But to quote from one of the few cultural touchstones not referenced in this film: "Houston, we've got a problem."
That problem, besides some overripe writing and acting, is expectation. Since The Matrix debuted in March 1999, the brainchild of Andy and Larry Wachowki — two college dropouts from Chicago — has ballooned into a cult. Not since 2001: A Space Odyssey and the first Star Wars trilogy has the youth audience latched onto a cinematic vision of a future generation and mined it so vigorously for truth about its own. It's easy to see why. Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is a software wage slave when Morpheus tells him that his reality — our reality — is an illusion. We all live in the Matrix, a program created to distract us with fantasies while evil machines suck out our life force. Hey, that's Hollywood's job.
Morpheus thinks Thomas is Neo, the One who will save humans from machines. That means Neo gets to plug back into the Matrix, dress in black, kick ass, dodge bullets in slo-mo, spout wisdom like a high priest, save the world and see what Trinity's got under that kinky latex.
No wonder a nation of would-be Neos has been itching for more Matrix. And since the Wachowskis raised the bar on balletic action, the demand is to raise the bar again. How does a sequel live up to that?
It can't. It doesn't. The Matrix Reloaded sags under the load of anticipation. After a grabber opening in which Neo dreams of Trinity falling to her death, the story switches to Zion, the underground city where humans gather to hear dull speeches and dance at night to an orgiastic drumbeat that prompts Neo and Trinity to strip and screw. The whole Zion sequence is a tacky bust, generating embarrassment, not heat.
Things improve when Neo plugs back in to the Matrix, sees the Oracle (the late, great Gloria Foster) and takes on the evil Agent Smith, played by Hugo Weaving, who sneers scarier and funnier than any movie robot. Suddenly, Smith morphs himself into a hundred all-kicking, all-sneering Smiths. It's the film's best action scene, next to the car chase (see box), and has drawn the wrath of critics who wonder why Neo — who can fly like Superman — didn't fly away to start with. Easy answer: He's having fun, messing with the Smiths, testing himself and giving us what we want. For the rest, Neo follows the path to wisdom that leads him to the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), a quiet sort he kidnaps from the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) — a French weasel (how topical) with a wife, Persephone (Monica Bellucci), who demands a kiss from Neo as revenge on Frenchie for programming blondes to give him blow jobs.
But that's another story. By the time Neo finds the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), the Wachowskis have put together a mix of culture, kung fu, sci-fi and speculation, that makes them the warped wonders they are. When the film ends with a "To Be Continued," the hooks are in for The Matrix Revolutions on November 5th. Maybe I've been programmed to say it, but I am so there.