Archive for Friday, May 16, 2003

Matrix’ sequel offers odd mix of action and lectures

(R) **1/2

May 16, 2003

There's a moment in "The Matrix Reloaded" when rogue Agent Smith
(Hugo Weaving) realizes the dozens of personal clones he has created
aren't enough to defeat the heroic Neo (Keanu Reeves).

"More!" the stone-faced villain howls, summoning a hundred or so new
copies of himself to the epic battle.
One can picture Andy and Larry Wachowski, the writing-directing team
behind the "Matrix" franchise, constantly uttering this same word
while crafting the sequels.

"The Matrix Reloaded" is all about "more." There are more fights,
more special effects, more characters, more dialogue ... and the plot
is way more complicated.

As one protagonist puts it: "What do all men with power want? More power."

Undoubtedly, "Reloaded" is a visually distinctive masterpiece of
action/sci-fi/martial arts choreography. The multiple Smiths brawl
and numerous other set pieces - including an astonishing freeway
chase - give fans of the series their respective money's worth.
Nobody will accuse the Wachowski brothers of leaving any of their
$127 million budget on the cutting-room floor.

But it's often a chore to reach these adrenaline moments. This sequel
is obsessed with council meetings, speeches, negotiations and
lectures. Every new character in the film provides cryptic analysis
of the "story so far" - conversations more befitting a James Bond
nemesis who is unveiling his scheme before stranding the secret agent
in an elaborate death trap.

This narrative quicksand is particularly noticeable during an
impotent first act that fails to capture the magic of the
oft-imitated original's "bullet-time" opening.

Talk about MORE exposition.

Here's the setup: Neo's power is increasing, but so too is the
computerized invaders' threat to Earth's survivors. A quarter million
Sentinels are burrowing toward Zion, the only remaining human
outpost. Neo, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence
Fishburne) decide to return to the Matrix with a many-tiered plan
that will shut down the mainframe for good and finally rid the planet
of its mechanized oppressors.

The trio's quest introduces them to new players in the expanding
universe, including an elitist Frenchman (what are the odds?) called
the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), his seductive wife Persephone
(Monica Bellucci) and their personal bodyguards whose abilities mimic
those of ghosts, vampires and werewolves. (Note: This is all
rationalized during one of the numerous speeches.)

Meanwhile, hostile Agent Smith has become something of a free agent,
operating for his own revenge-oriented reasons rather than to serve
the greater good of the system.

In the four years since the original's release, "The Matrix" has
developed into a cult property, a la "Star Trek," where loyal viewers
find great meaning in the subtext and allegories. Parallels ranging
from "Alice in Wonderland" to the Biblical saga of Jesus have been
interpreted within the flick.

All this philosophical/metaphysical rambling doesn't alter the fact
that this latest "Matrix" is a visual movie, pure and simple. In that
respect, "Reloaded" triumphs, with blinding duels and breakneck
pursuits that are spectacular in their design. The Wachowskis take
great care envisioning the texture of this illusionary world, from
the Ellis Island-meets-"Blade Runner" look of the subterranean Zion
to the faux opulence of the Merovingian's pad.

Yet when the picture attempts to go beyond the eye-candy, it veers
from boring to downright silly.
This is exemplified by the film's most embarrassing moment, when
Trinity and Neo share a spot of lovemaking while images of a Zionist
dance party are intercut between thrusts. The camera lingers on
slow-motion shots of writhing extras grooving to tribalized techno
music. The scene culminates with the exposure of Keanu's butt.

Add "more" butt to the list.

It's always tough to judge the middle part of a trilogy before having
seen the third portion. (Few remember that "The Empire Strikes Back"
was contemporarily criticized as a deeply unsatisfying film, whereas,
in retrospect, it's considered the standout.) Like "Empire" or "The
Two Towers," the movie has that difficult task of being a bridge
between beginning and end.

Hopefully, "The Matrix Revolutions," which hits theaters in November,
will provide some closure. Perhaps then the enigmatic secrets behind
Neo's computerized experience will be enjoyably unlocked. Maybe all
of this sequel's earnest orations will result in a grand sense of
meaning for those who treat the series like dorm room Scientology.

And maybe "Reloaded" is just a diverting piece of pop entertainment
that has utilized the enormous talent and budget at its disposal to
craft a futuristic thrill ride ... no more and no less.

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