As with all reviews of sequels, the first thing to get out of the way is how well this installment stands on its own. Answer, not at all. If you havenít seen THE MATRIX, good luck making sense of whatís going on. It wouldnít hurt to have seen the animation, LAST FLIGHT OF THE OSIRIS, which ran with DREAMCATCHER. Unless, of course, your only interest is in car chases, explosions, and some stunning wire work. In which case, you will not be disappointed. In this, and only this, THE MATRIX RELOADED succeeds admirably, and that is quite a letdown for those of us hoping for the dynamics and smarts of part one.
While THE MATRIX dealt with metaphysics in the form of a fantasy flick, MATRIX RELOADED is a fantasy flick with metaphysical overtones. Virtually every word of the first film reflected its concern with the nature of reality, how we can know what we know and the prison of the senses. RELOADED has moved on, and Iím not saying thatís a bad thing if the point is to tackle another philosophical question, which there is. It's the nature of free will, but the short shrift that this installment gives it is irritating. There is also a tantalizing subplot involving dreams as a different, but equally valid kind of reality, also shortchanged. Perhaps in the final installment, there will be more on that. Which brings me to the other failing of RELOADED, itís the middle film. In the first, Neo, The One who will deliver mankind from its bondage to sentient machines, is on the classic heroís journey of discovery, a time-honored theme from Gilgamesh to Luke Skywalker. The heroís ultimate triumph is yet to come in part three. What is left for part two is to set up that ending and to explore the inner workings of the Matrix itself, as well as some of the characters who inhabit it. And in this, as with the effects, the film does a fine job, and, in a stroke of serendipity, one that is timely. One of the uber-programs thwarting Neo and company has sampled every language known to man and decided French is his favorite, hence in the human form that all programs take for for real humans inserted into The Matrix, his accent is French as are his weaknesses for savoring wine and seducing women.
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One of the most intriguing, if sadly abbreviated, set ups for the finale, and the one that sticks closest to the question of freedom, involves Agent Smith, incarnated so intriguingly by Hugo Weaving. Yes, I know. He appeared to have been killed, or, to be more precise when dealing with a program sentient or otherwise, deleted. But assume nothing here, including that all the programs running in The Matrix are compatible with each other, a nice touch that dovetails with the experience of every computer user in the audience. Smith is back, in murderous multitudes and ticked off because after Neo deleted him, he came back with something frighteningly like free will. An enhancement heís not at all happy about.
RELOADED has more than its share of hurdles to overcome as a sequel. Some it clears, some it doesnít. The original set a very high bar for special effects and for a literate script. The effects here are dazzling, there is no other word for it. The martial arts sequences choreographed by Woo Ping Yuen are the height of poetry and, when itís Neo against an army of Agent Smiths all reacting just a little differently, infinitely fascinating. Even the requisite chase sequence does more with hurtling objects on asphalt that you would think possible. But when it comes to serious food for thought, this is just an appetizer compared to the first film, eye candy with no real intellectual content.