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The 'Matrix' in the middle

'Reloaded' packs a visceral visual wallop, but this in-between sequel lacks emotional power and doesn't live up to its predecessor.

May 14, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Let's start with all the things "The Matrix Reloaded" is:

* the highly anticipated sequel to one of the most influential, admired (four Academy Awards) and popular (nearly half a billion dollars in worldwide theatrical gross) of films;

* the first part of a simultaneously shot two-picture conclusion to the original (the second part, "The Matrix Revolutions," comes out in November) that together cost upward of $300 million and has taken four years to come to the screen;

* an elaborately choreographed, rigorously stylized science-fiction epic rife with cool heroes, intriguing villains and eye-widening action set pieces that show us the money in no uncertain terms.

Saying what "The Matrix Reloaded" isn't turns out to be a lot less complicated: It's simply not as satisfying as the original.

Even the return of stars Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Ann Moss, as well as writer-directors and conceptual godfathers Larry and Andy Wachowski, can't change that.

While that reality might be predictable -- and, to a certain extent, unavoidable for the follow-up to a film that changed the face of what we expect from this kind of escapist entertainment -- it's still a disappointment and one that illustrates the limitations of cool as a defining and sustaining style.

Yes, the Wachowskis had more money and more complex effects to play around with this time, but on the debit side, what could possibly compensate for the loss of the you've-never-seen-this-before excitement the first one delivered.

Another built-in source of frustration is a kind of "Malcolm in the Middle" syndrome. While the first "Matrix" was enhanced by the classic drama of the making of the hero Neo from humble clay, and the third one will presumably have the drive of a powerful can-humanity-be-saved conclusion, middles are almost by definition less compelling and trickier to make involving.

There are several characters, like Jada Pinkett Smith's warrior Niobe, who seem to be embedded here for greater use in Part 3, and there's less at stake in the film's outcome because we know the story doesn't really end here. Good intentions and great effects notwithstanding, in dramatic terms this is basically an expensive place holder, a rest stop where the narrative can catch its breath before moving on.

The Wachowskis, to their credit, are clearly aware of these pitfalls, and they do everything in their considerable power to mount a vigorous counterattack. Their strongest weapon, now as always, is the power and complexity of their vision, their belief in and passion for the alternative universe they have created and nurtured to the smallest detail like twins creating their own private language. Theirs is a world real enough to walk around in, real enough to have spun off a concurrent short film collection called "The Animatrix," and that makes a considerable difference.

Another weapon is the cleverness of the trilogy's originating concept, the notion that the real world is a computer-generated dreamscape, a virtual reality concoted by machines to distract us while our bodies are being plundered as an energy source less troublesome than Middle Eastern oil.

As the first film concluded, Neo (Reeves), after being anointed by Morpheus (Fishburne) and loved by Trinity (Moss), came to accept his position as the One, a human destined to liberate his species from artificial-intelligence bondage. But if that was going to be easy, a three-part movie wouldn't be necessary.

"Reloaded" begins with the gang returning to the underground city of Zion, where all the world's already-freed humans live, but where not everyone is convinced that Neo is the One or even that the prophecies are real. Making things that much more urgent is that the machines have sent an attack force of 250,000 nasty Sentinels who will reach Zion in 72 hours and attempt to destroy these pesky rebels once and for all.

In an attempt to stop the attack, Neo must reconsult the prophesizing Oracle and follow her maddeningly murky directions while fending off attacks from all kinds of inhuman individuals up to no good, including Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who has returned with even greater powers.

In telling this story, the Wachowskis once again lean on the things that made the first one so successful, though there is now a sense that, not realizing you can have too much of a good thing, they're in danger of leaning on them too hard. There is, for instance, now so much style evident in clothing and accessories, it sometimes seems that what this whole movie is about is having the right sunglasses.

There are also more characters whose names come with associations from mythology (Persephone, Niobe), Japanese cinema (Mifune), European history (the Merovingian), and the Old Testament (Zion, Nebuchadnezzar), the last of which underlines how much of an unacknowledged Christ figure the anointed Neo is made out to be, complete with a battle-hardened John the Baptist in Morpheus.

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