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 havent seen THE MATRIX, good luck making sense of whats going on. It wouldnt 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 Im not saying thats 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, its the middle film. In the first, Neo, The One who will deliver mankind from its bondage to sentient machines, is on the classic heros journey of discovery, a time-honored theme from Gilgamesh to Luke Skywalker. The heros 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.
We also get to visit Zion, the underground refuge for that fragment of humanity that has escaped the machines. And here The Wachowski Brothers have succumbed to the lure of a bigger budget. The sets and the extras go on for miles in all directions, hence we lose the tension of claustrophobia that the first film used to such terrific effect. This brings up the question of whether or not a thing should be done just because there is the budget to allow it to be done, a quandary that, giving the Wachowskis the benefit of the doubt, may have been included as yet another philosophical conundrum for the audience to ponder. I suspect further serendipity, though. Zion takes us from the techno-noir of THE MATRIX to techno-Lord of The Rings, with those armies of extras dressed as hip peasants attending either raves or council meetings. Its also where Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), his icy Amazon comrade, get to have some steamy sex, another departure from the first flick.
The story itself concerns the attack by the machines on Zion that was first broached in THE FINAL FLIGHT OF THE OSIRIS. In order to save the city from a ravening horde of octopus-like robots that infest their world, Neo and company must maneuver themselves into the inner workings of THE MATRIX, a place called The Source, and in order to do that they must deal with the oldest and meanest program in The Matrix, The Merovignian (those up on the myth and mystery of Rennes Le Chateau will be amused by the reference). Zions standing army also comes into play, including Jada Pinkett-Smith looking very menacing in her latex and leather as Niobe, who shares a past with Neos captain, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne back sotto voiced and menacing). On another sartorial note, Keanu Reeves, returning with deadpan intensity as Neo, has taken to wearing something that looks very like a Jesuits cassock, perhaps in keeping with his messiah-like status and because it does look so very cool in the action sequences, of which there are many, as it ripples and wafts.
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 hes not at all happy about.
RELOADED has more than its share of hurdles to overcome as a sequel. Some it clears, some it doesnt. 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 its 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.