Stuck with the daunting challenge of topping the artistic/commercial/cultural hat trick that was “The Matrix,” the Wachowski Brothers score a somewhat more straightforward power-play goal in “The Matrix Reloaded.” Studded with remarkable action set-pieces and graced with any number of felicitous performances, this continuation of the 1999 B.O. blockbuster, stylistic trend-setter and would-be cinematic Rosetta stone certainly delivers enough thrills, kicks and cool moments to satiate geeks, fans and mere general viewers worldwide — until the “Revolutions” installment wraps up the trilogy in November. But anticipation is so high, and the cultural attention span so fickle, it’s fair to wonder if reality can quite match the fantasy of expectation, especially since “Reloaded” is more conventionally plotted, more reminiscent of other films and less novel and mysterious than its predecessor. Up to one-quarter of the original’s $460 million worldwide gross will doubtless be drawn on the North American opening weekend, which stars May 15, and every expectation is that the picture will rule in a summer dominated by other franchise sequels.
The first film, a March release preceded by little hype or awareness, caught on quickly with young viewers and gradually developed almost unique mass-cult status due to its edgy comic-book sensibility, cyber-hipness, new-look Asian martial arts variations, devastating fashion sense and intellectual/philosophical/religious samplings that spawned a thousand Web sites and inspired undergraduates to crack open their Hegel, Schopenhauer and Heidegger with a renewed sense of dedication. Studio executives must still be kicking themselves for not having thought earlier to invest kick-butt action with references to Buddha-via-Hesse and the Book of Daniel, but it took Andy and Larry Wachowski to do it.
Enabled by their “Matrix” success to continue the story they had always envisioned as a trilogy, the brothers have made everything exponentially bigger than before — by morphing Agent Smith a hundred times over, by turning Neo not only into the One but into Superman in the bargain, by building their own freeway to stage the Greatest Car Chase Ever Filmed.
It’s all superbly staged and eye-popping to watch, but no matter how stupendous the action becomes, there’s nothing anyone can do about the fact it’s no longer quite as fresh or surprising as it was the first time around.
While “The Matrix” could be initially confounding and mystifying, the conflicts and perils in “Reloaded” are as clear as in an episode of “Star Trek.” After an explosive anime-style teaser in which Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss, looking more buff than ever) attacks an apparent h.q. and catapults out a window down toward seemingly certain doom as she fires at pursuing agents above her, attention shifts to the city of Zion, discussed but unseen in the original. The last outpost of humankind on Earth, it’s about to be assaulted by an army of tentacled sentinels sent to eliminate the last holdouts to Machine rule.
Notwithstanding that the heart of Zion looks like a combination of a smoldering multicultural disco from any Joel Silver production and a picture of Old Testament debauchery out of DeMille, the rebellious outpost is ruled by a council of reason and sensibility. But carrying the day upon arrival is the errant Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who insists in a thunderous speech that, after 100 years of warfare, the One is at hand who can turn near-extinction to victory.
As for Neo (Keanu Reeves), he’s gone through some changes since embracing his destiny. For starters, he’s in the passionate early stages of romance with Trinity. Although burdened by self-doubt — “I wish I knew what I was supposed to do,” he laments at the outset — he’s much better equipped to dowhatever might be required, having gained the ability to fly. When he ultimately arrives in Zion to accept his assignment, he is greeted like a true savior.
Almost in the manner of an old Hollywood biblical epic, this early stage of the film is drenched in equal parts sex and ritual, as a needlessly overdone dance/orgy inspired by Morpheus’ sermon to the multitudes is intercut with Neo and Trinity locked in sweaty lovemaking. Neo then begins his Homeric quest in the Real World with a visit to the Oracle (the late and glorious Gloria Foster). In this wonderfully written and performed scene, this seemingly ordinary middle-aged black woman inspires Neo and instructs him to seek a man named the Keymaker.
But Neo is immediately greeted by presumed-dead nemesis Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who promptly replicates himself again and again, until there are 100 Agent Smiths battling Neo in a city courtyard. Designed to amaze by outsizing the original’s Neo-Smith the characters here bend, contort, run, jump, hit and chop in dizzying combinations before Neo sends dozens of Smiths tumbling like so many bowling pins. As stunning as the sequence is, however, the martial-arts scenes this time around appear to be framed tighter and to have more cuts in them, which slightly reduces their classical rigor and distinction.
The quest for the Keymaker leads Neo, Trinity and Morpheus to an audience in a fancy restaurant with Merovingian (Lambert Wilson). A handsome, sophisticated French snob, Merovingian delivers a monologue about human choice and causality before heading to an assignation with a woman in the ladies’ room. His gorgeous wife Persephone (Monica Bellucci) vengefully agrees to lead the humans to the Keymaker, but with a provocative condition: Inspired by the ardor between Neo and Trinity, Persephone demands a passionate kiss from Neo.
The Keymaker turns out to be a diminutive Asian (Randall Duk Kim), who literally does have the key to everything. But Merovingian’s goons, particularly some malevolent albino twins, are close behind, and this pursuit sets up the picture’s most galvanizing sequence, a 14-minute high-speed freeway chase in which Trinity, first in a car, then on a motorcycle, attempts to spirit the Keymaker out of harm’s way, while Morpheus wards off assailants, flipping from vehicle to vehicle.
Shot on a partially walled-in highway specially constructed in San Francisco’s East Bay (the Bay Bridge is occasionally visible in the background), the chase is an exhilarating example of action-to-camera staging and stunt choreography, as characters assault, shoot at and ram one another. In one particularly eye-popping stretch, Trinity reverses field on a bike and swerves through oncoming traffic with an inch or two to spare on either side. The only comparable scene in memory is the climactic chase in the second Mad Max film, “The Road Warrior,” although the sheer scale of this new speedfest dwarfs the previous competition.
Splitting back onto parallel tracks, pic races toward its climax as the machines close in on Zion just as Neo gains entree, via the Keymaker, to the Architect — the man who created the Matrix. In this quasi-Lynchian scene set in a chamber lined with video screens displaying moments from his life, Neo listens as the old man delivers, in exquisitely precise language, a disquieting discourse on the subject of human choice, and gives a more thorough explanation of the nature of the Matrix universe than has been offered to date. It’s a testament to the Wachowskis’ shrewdness that, for such a spotlighted role they cast an unknown, Helmut Bakaitis, who is as impressive as a more conventionally cast Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart might have been. Pic ends abruptly, with a tantalizing “To Be Concluded” tag, and true fans will want to stick around through the nine minutes of credits for the action-packed one-minute preview of “Revolutions” at the end.
Boasting far more visual effects than did the original, “Reloaded” understandably looks more effects-based, which is one aspect that makes it resemble other genre entries more than the first film did. The effort to outdo the original is also palpable, sometimes to diminishing returns — just as the straightening of the narrative and the filling in of information lessen the pic’s mystery.
Film’s combination of stylishness, seriousness of purpose and visceral impact makes it compulsively watchable. Obviously planned with meticulous care in all departments, pic sees the return of all hands who made the original such a visual and aural extravaganza, notably cinematographer Bill Pope, production designer Owen Paterson, costume designer Kym Barrett, editor Zach Staenberg, visual effects supervisor John Gaeta, fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (abetted by Dion Lam), composer Don Davis and sound designer Dane A. Davis.
Even more than before, the cast impresses. Reeves’ confidence seems to have grown along with Neo’s, making him a pleasure to watch. Fishburne’s Morpheus has powerfully evolved into more of a spiritual leader with absolute faith in destiny as he sees it, while Moss’ Trinity, by contrast, has acquired a new vulnerability based on her love for Neo and her fear of losing that love. Weaving gives the multiple Smiths’ every line a delectably insinuating tone.
Harry Lennix registers strongly in his role as a Zion military commander at odds with Morpheus professionally and personally, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Niobe having come between them. Harold Perrineau’s Link remains virtually glued to his keyboard as he lives up to his name as the conduit among the various human factions, while Foster, Wilson, Bellucci and Kim shine in their centerstage moments.