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The Matrix Reloaded   B+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Writers: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, Monica Bellucci, Nona Gaye, Harold Perrineau, Harry Lennix, Matt McColm, Lambert Wilson, Gloria Foster.

Review by Rob Vaux

Let's get it out of the way right now. The Matrix Reloaded will not duplicate the experience of the original Matrix. It will not catch us by surprise, dump us on our collective head and make us goggle in wonderment at the achievement placed before us. The first film was a sucker punch, an invisible blip that landed with the fury of a hurricane. Its innovation was matched by the fact that no one could see it coming -- a luxury that The Matrix Reloaded simply doesn't have. Warner Bros. has assaulted us with an advertising campaign of Napoleonic proportions, choreographing product tie-ins and rampant ads with smart-bomb precision. The resulting hype is more than any film can match, and The Matrix Reloaded simply doesn't scale the heights that have been set for it. Ask George Lucas, the man whose thunder they stole: no matter how hard they try, they can never make it as good as we want it to be.

Having said that, The Matrix Reloaded is still pretty damn good. For all the hype and noise and attractive video games available on the exact day of release, directors Andy and Larry Wachowski still have a great creative concept at the core of it all. The Matrix presented a vision of the future at once both dystopic and exhilarating, a world that, while not entirely original, presented its ideas in a unique and compelling fashion. The Matrix Reloaded is content to further detail this world; not develop it so much as fill in the blank spots (it goes without saying that the first movie is mandatory viewing for anyone who hopes to understand this one). Once more, we return to the far future, where the titular VR computer program convinces an enslaved humanity that they're living out "normal" lives in contemporary society. A rebel movement fights to overthrow that enforced reality, led by the messianic Neo (Keanu Reeves) and his mentor Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). The Matrix Reloaded focuses on the continuation of their quest, battling the sentient machines that keep humanity in chains. We see the spectacle of Zion, "the last free human city," as it falls under attack from without, while Neo and his compatriots seek the answers to prophetic riddles within the Matrix itself. We see the return of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), "cut free" by Neo's tampering and now possessing the ability to duplicate himself like a virus. And we see the expected phalanx of impressive fights and action scenes, on which the philosophy must depend lest the audience grow too bored.

All of it should be familiar to viewers of the first film, and it remains engaging enough, though we never really feel it the way we should. The acting is adequate, but was never great shakes to begin with (save for Weaving's wonderful Agent Smith), and the soap-opera subplots merely fill space rather than achieving any genuine resonance. Initially, much of it feels misplayed... though as The Matrix Reloaded continues, its "shortcomings" transform into hints of deeper mysteries. It would be more thrilling if we could see where it was going, but it cuts itself short, presumably saving the juiciest tidbits for the third part of the trilogy.

Therein lies the trouble. The Matrix Reloaded is doomed to remain frustratingly obscure, no matter how many convoluted explanations it provides. The Wachowskis pour a great deal of energy into esoteric matters, from Neo's deliberations on free will to the true purpose of the Matrix itself. Zion gets its fair due -- complete with imposing security devices and a rave/orgy featuring beautiful people in filmy clothes -- as do a few new parts of the Matrix itself. The machines are not without internal politics, it seems, and several "older programs" make their appearance as power-mongers, humble craftsmen, and menacing wraiths. It's all nifty stuff, but without the third film to complete the journey, it raises far too many questions to satisfy us.

What's left is spectacle, and in that department at least The Matrix Reloaded exceeds all expectations. The Wachowskis passionately revel in every corner of their canvas, and throw themselves wholeheartedly into the rampaging style that made the first film such a feast. We feel the energy of this universe from the very first frame, and the resonance of its vision still holds the power to delight. As a straight action film it runs circles around the competition, featuring a 14-minute car chase that may set a new benchmark, and martial arts choreography by Yuen Wo Ping that's some of the most imaginative you'll see (and a good thing too, since Neo's status as prophesied savior sucks some of the drama out of his fights). Its underpinnings may be murky, but its bright noises and shiny objects are well worth the price of admission.

That's probably the most we can hope for at this stage. In the end, The Matrix Reloaded is a work in progress, the first half of a larger sequel that has yet to be completed. Until the finale arrives, we can only question and wait, debating the shape of a puzzle still lacking pieces. We can forgive it, of course, and even enjoy it for what it is, though only because we know (or hope) that the answers are coming. In light of that, it's probably best not to dwell too much on its subtext, but rather just sit back, enjoy the pretty pictures, and leave the heavy thinking for The Matrix Revolutions this fall. "Wait a minute, he's who? And they need to do what? That doesn't make any... Aw forget it, here comes some kung-fu!"

Review published 05.16.2003.

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