Here's your review of "The Matrix Reloaded" in a nutshell: One incredibly cool, gravity-defying, CGI-aided, swirling-camera kung-fu melee; one jaw-dropping, 100-mph, against-traffic freeway chase; and way, way too much long-winded, expository, circular, self-important, pseudo-philosophical yappity-yappity-yap.
Writing-directing brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski saddle their cast with endless equivocal prattle while toiling to buttress the complex plot and metaphysical undertone of this picture's uber-stylish 1999 predecessor, which saw what we think is the real world exposed as an elaborate virtual reality prison for the minds of all humanity. Mankind's suspended bodies provide a power source for a race of machines, which a small band of escapees are hoping to destroy in the post-apocalyptic world outside the Matrix.
"We can never see past the choices we don't understand," sage but elusive cyber-prophet The Oracle (Gloria Foster) preaches cryptically to Neo (Keanu Reeves), the cyber-Messianic hero whose realization that physical laws don't apply in the Matrix led to the first film's groundbreaking wire-work martial arts fights and bullet-dodging slow-mo stunts.
In another scene, Neo says to a greasy, French-accented bad guy "You know why we're here." To which the Frenchman (Lambert Wilson) replies "Yes, but do you? You think you do, but you do not."
This kind of nonsense goes on for three to four minutes at a stretch, in scene after scene, all through the movie -- which comes to feel hollow and meaningless as a result. Sometimes it was all I could do to keep from going cross-eyed and zoning out.
Even when "Reloaded" takes a break from all the chin-wagging, the Wachowskis deliver only two action scenes up that measure up to the breathtaking standard set in "The Matrix." The first finds Neo (who can now "see" in streaming green computer code plugged into the virtual world) fighting off several dozen clones of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the slithery sentient computer program in an FBI suit who was the first film's villain and who has now gone rouge inside the Matrix, like a virus.
The scene is choreographed and computer-enhanced within an inch of its highly-stylized life, with Neo knocking Smiths across courtyards and up several floors into the sides of adjacent buildings while the camera circles around him wildly, using the Wachowskis' trademark of speed-up-slow-down trick photography. This fight doesn't have the "wow" factor that such moments did in 1999, but it's the first time "Reloaded" really comes to life (even if it is inundated with a cheesy, over-orchestrated, metal-guitars-and-angel-choruses musical score).
The second action eye-popper is freeway chase that sees solemnly devout hepcat freedom fighter Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) battling another Agent atop a speeding 18-wheeler while leather-catsuit-clad, tough-sexy heroine Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) outruns cops, Agents and the Frenchman's henchmen (two indestructible, ghost-like albino twins in white suits and dreadlocks) by weaving in and out of head-on traffic on a Ducati motorcycle. Coupled with its dozen or so spectacular slow-motion crashes and explosions, this scene is the flick's only real showstopper.
Much of the story takes place in Zion, the deep-underground last bastion of mankind in the real world. The place looks like a sci-fi version of a 1950s biblical epic -- complete with wide-eyed worshipers, women carrying bread baskets to lay at Neo's feet and men in military tunics, many of whom are doubters in the prophecy of Neo as their savior. ("God dammit, Morpheus," barks one walking cliché. "I don't care about Oracles or prophecies or Messiahs! I only care about saving our city!")
Zion is preparing for an attack by 250,000 sentinels (the frightening, giant-squid-like robots from the first film) that are tunneling toward the city, and it seems the only hope is for Neo to fulfill his destiny by slipping through digital "back doors" in the Matrix program and attacking the system's mainframe. Once there he will be faced with a startling surprise and what might seem like an impossible choice -- if only the scene weren't weighed down by another five minutes of irksome, impenetrable dialogue.
Often hard to follow (one character with less than four minutes of screen time turns out to be pivotal -- if you can remember what he looks like), "The Matrix Reloaded" is further burdened by the franchise's monotoned acting style, by atmospheric scenes that serve no purpose (Neo and Trinity have sex during a Burning Man-styled rave in Zion) and by effects sequences that have so many layers of soft-focus CGI they look more like a videogame than a movie.
On balance, is it worth sitting through all this for the action alone? For fans, yes. Just barely. But if you're anywhere near an IMAX theater, you might want to wait until June when the film will be released in large-format -- and mercifully 20 minutes shorter because IMAX projectors can only run films under two hours.
PS: Be sure to stay past the unresolved ending and through the closing credits for a preview of November's finale, "The Matrix Revolutions."
Run time: 138 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 15th May 2003
Box Office USA: $281.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $738.6M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Heineken Branded Entertainment, Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, Silver Pictures, NPV Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 73%
Fresh: 174 Rotten: 63
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: The Wachowski Brothers
Starring: Helmut Bakaitis as The Architect, Steve Bastoni as Soren, Don Battee as Vector, Monica Bellucci as Persephone, Daniel Bernhardt as Agent Johnson, Valerie Berry as Priestess, Ian Bliss as Bane, Liliana Bogatko as Old Woman at Zion, Michael Budd as Zion Controller, Stoney Burke as Bike Carrier Driver, Kelly Butler as Ice, Josephine Byrnes as Zion Virtual Control Operator, Noris Campos as Woman with Groceries, Collin Chou as Seraph, Paul Cotter as Corrupt, Marlene Cummins as Another Old Woman at Zion, Attila Davidhazy as Young Thomas Anderson at 12, Essie Davis as Maggie, Terrell Dixon as Wurm, Nash Edgerton as Security Guard #5, Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, Gloria Foster as Oracle, David Franklin as Maitre D', Austin Galuppo as Young Thomas Anderson at 4, Nona Gaye as Zee, Daryl Heath as A.P.U. Escort, Roy Jones Jr. as Captain Ballard, Malcolm Kennard as Abel, David Kilde as Agent Jackson, Randall Duk Kim as The Keymaker, Christopher Kirby as Mauser, Peter Lamb as Colt, Nathaniel Lees as Mifune, Harry Lennix as Commander Lock, Tony Lynch as Computer Room Technician, Robert Mammone as AK, Joshua Mbakwe as Link's Nephew, Matt McColm as Agent Thompson, Chris Mitchell as Power Station Guard, Steve Morris as Computer Room Guard, Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity, Tory Mussett as Beautiful Woman at Le Vrai, Rene Naufahu as Zion Gate Operator, Robyn Nevin as Councillor Dillard, David No as Cain, Genevieve O'Reilly as Officer Wirtz, Socratis Otto as Operator, Harold Perrineau Jr. as Link, Jada Pinkett Smith as Niobe, Montaño Rain as Young Thomas Anderson at 8, Adrian Rayment as Twin #2, Neil Rayment as Twin #1, Rupert Reid as Lock's Lieutenant, Keanu Reeves as Neo, Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith, Lambert Wilson as The Merovingian, Cornel West as Councillor West, David Roberts as Roland, Shane C. Rodrigo as Ajax, Nick Scoggin as Gidim Truck Driver, Kevin Scott as 18 Wheel Trucker, Tahei Simpson as Binary, Frankie Stevens as Tirant, Nicandro Thomas as Young Thomas Anderson at 2, Gina Torres as Cas, Andrew Valli as Police #1, Steve Vella as Malachi, John Walton as Security Bunker Guard, Clayton Watson as Kid, Leigh Whannell as Axel, Bernard White as Rama-Kandra, Anthony Zerbe as Councillor Hamann, Scott McLean as Security Bunker Guard #2, Anthony Wong as Ghost