starring Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving
written and directed by Lana Wachowski & Lilly Wachowski
by Walter Chaw In the middle of a scene where Keanu Reeves's trench-coated Neo fights dozens of Hugo Weaving's Mr. Smiths in a Brooklyn schoolyard, it occurred to me that, what with its wah-chuka-chuka soundtrack and meticulously choreographed (read: programmed) simulacrum of violence, The Matrix Reloaded is at this moment the nuttiest redux of West Side Story, in addition to the very definition of neo-blaxploitation. Cool vehicles, cool weapons, cool tunes, villains cast as endless iterations of The Man in monkey suits (and a set of albino kung fu twins), all with attitude to spare... Call it "techsploitation," perhaps--the hijacking of native cultures in the service of a Romanticist struggle against machine gods rendered, ironically, by mainframes and hackers.
The picture abounds with like ironies: Its action is less exciting than excitingly dictated, its "reality" is far less interesting than its "matrix," its tale of the struggle against machines taking over is taken over by machines, and its attempts to provide a Star Wars substitute (in a wasteland where Star Wars has been hijacked by an idiot) leaves the production feeling less myth/archetype (like Jung) than huggy (like the New Testament). The Matrix Reloaded is gravid and ridiculous, but it's so magnificently punch-drunk on its own sense of the operatic and messianic that it's just (if only just) possible to appreciate this great, sloppy, bloated beast as something of a masterpiece of high camp.
Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) believe Neo to be The One that The Prophecy foretold. Foretold to what? "The One" of what? Hard to say, and The Matrix Reloaded is intent on continuing to obfuscate things on a pocket existential level--it's less "down the rabbit hole" than "abandon all rational thought." Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) used to date Morpheus, but now she dates Lock (Harry Lennix), and when they all meet in Zion, the last human settlement in a far future in which machines have enslaved the minds of most men in a virtual reality matrix, sparks threaten to fly. Sparks threaten to fly is the rule of the day, so it seems, as love is professed in wooden gesticulations (oh, for a Rita Moreno or George Chakiris in this ocean of Richard Beymers), passion expressed is crosscut with a throng of undulating Bacchites, and the fate of man is decided in "The Lady or the Tiger"/Schröedinger's Cat conundrums and rhetorical non-answers. The picture is more or less the I Ching with complicated--and still fake-looking--special effects.
The Matrix Reloaded is pretty much what you'd expect to see from the second chapter in a completed trilogy, plagued with the same love for exposition as X2 and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Too much time is given over to tying up loose ends from the Animatrix animé series (rewarding fanboys who downloaded each instalment) while the film proper vacillates from hysterical action sequences to hilarious dialogue ("I am only who I am" countless characters intone--the Popeye philosophy gussied-up in sombre diction); both are informed by a potpourri cosmology that seems to be pointing to Neo as not the destroyer of machines, but the union between man and machine. Cronenberg's cyberpunk (something echoed in the metal shunts that decorate Neo's spine)--insofar as it intersects with Ghost in the Shell (the picture The Matrix owes the bulk of its images and ideas)--is the most interesting element of the Matrix universe and, disappointingly, the least examined. The films so far take the marriage between flesh and metal for granted while fat opportunities for a genuine discomfort in our Will to Power-plugs lie fallow.
What engages and continues to engage are the whiffs of something grander, the unmistakable stink of ambition lurking beneath the bread and circus. The Matrix Reloaded can occasionally justify its hubris (distinguishing itself from self-obsessed pretentious garbage like George Lucas's empty shrines to himself): In flashes, it represents the sort of auteur arrogance that all but vanished from the American mainstream at the end of the 1970s. The Oracle (Gloria Foster) is a better Yoda than Yoda nowadays, Helmut Bakaitis makes for an interesting god, and Hugo Weaving continues to be the great undiscovered Aussie actor of his generation. A fifteen-minute highway chase is applause-worthy in its clarity and exuberant excess; the creation of a few compelling new villains engages (best of which is a rogue program named after a mythic Atlantean line: The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his infernal bride Persephone (Monica Bellucci)); and the idea that the great downfall of sentient machines may be (recalling Clive Barker now) ego and sexual jealousy.
Opportunities for extra-textual discussion aside (and overrated; The Matrix series is essentially a "for Dummies" primer on philosophy, not a philosophy in of itself), The Matrix Reloaded is too long and, for long stretches, too dull. Where the first film contented itself with hollowed-out copies of Baudrillard, this one takes your hand and walks you slowly through its kaleidoscope of theologies in endless dreary monologues, and it still doesn't hold up to very much scrutiny. It's the same complaint I harbour for the seminal animé Akira, as it happens, and likewise, if The Matrix Reloaded is forever on the precipice of preposterous and overfed, it also nurses within itself somewhere the seed of something genuinely, goofily grand. Ultimately, the picture is no better or worse than its early-summer cousin X2: lots of CGI that will look outmoded in a few years, lots of undercooked romances to spice the stew, too many plotlines even for a slack running time, and just that tantalizing glimmer of a thought in its pretty little head. At this point, we take what we can get.