It's too bad that—unlike Neo (Keanu Reeves), the computer-hacker-turned-messianic-superhero of The Matrix Reloaded (Warner Bros.)—I can't freeze bullets in midflight and send them clinking to the ground, because I have a feeling you'll want to shoot the messenger.
Now, hold on, put those guns down: I wrote a 2,000-word piece in last week's New York Times in celebration of Andy and Larry Wachowski's gift, in the 1999 original, for bending space, time, and motion. True, my musings were upstaged by a 2-million-word piece on Jayson Blair's gift for bending space, time, and motion, but here's the point: I went into Reloaded with the same quasi-religious expectation that my universe would be rocked. Barring that, I was hoping for maybe a good night out at the movies.
The grim news is that TheMatrixReloaded is as messy and flat-footed as its predecessor is nimble and shapely. It's an ugly, bloated, repetitive movie that builds to a punch line that should have come an hour earlier (at least). Then it ends as it's just beginning: Stay tuned for The Matrix Revolutions, coming in November to 8,000 theaters near you.
The original was, above all, an ontological mystery: How could Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) hang suspended in midair? Why did Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) know what Neo, then Thomas Anderson, was up to every second? Why did Anderson's life feel like a dream? The answers came gradually, mind-bendingly, mind-blowingly: an astute mix of everything trendy in postmodern sci-fi (Philip K. Dick and his paranoid visions of the world-as-simulation) and philosophy (Jean Baudrillard's view of the real obscured by materialism and technology), and everything up-to-the-minute in special effects and action. Most important, once Neo took the red pill, unplugged himself, and entered the virtual dojo, each fight developed his sense of who he was and what, within the Matrix, he was capable of doing; each action scene marked an ontological/metaphysical leap forward.
Almost from the start, Reloaded feels different from the original—more stilted, mechanical, blockbuster-business-as-usual, Lucasoid. The picture opens with Trinity, in her gleaming black cat suit, sailing over a wall on a motorcycle, somersaulting into a building, and taking out a bunch of guards. The fighting is twice as complicated as in the opening of The Matrix—there are more stunts, more guards, more everything—but because it's essentially the same thing all over again, it has about a hundredth of the impact.
A few seconds later, Trinity bursts through a window and plummets backward down the side of a skyscraper while firing at an agent, who leaps after her firing back, the bullets carving silver tracks in the air in slow motion, the shards of glass spinning like diamonds around the falling bodies. It should be amazing; it should be the coolest thing ever. But the shot has the disposable feel of a video game: You can imagine the program resetting itself, and then all those little zeros and ones reassembling to play again.
It's true, the revelation of The Matrix was that the universe was a sort of video game, a simulation in which—once you realized that yours was a virtual self and "freed your mind"—you could transcend time and gravity. But the Wachowskis (and their special-effects supervisor, John Gaeta) managed to give the action a kind of weight that was missing from even most Hong Kong movies (their inspiration). That was clearly Reeves (and Moss, and Fishburne, and Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith) doing the fighting, the actors having trained for months (with the great Hong Kong fight choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen) to perform the gravity-defying stunts that, not so long ago, were only the province of honed Chinese acrobats.
The cast trained even longer this time, but the way the fights are staged and shot (and, in some cases, digitized), you wonder if they really had to. In the case of the "Burly Brawl," extensively hyped in a breathless piece by Steve Silberman in Wired, they didn't. Gaeta and his team devised a way to digitize a battle between Neo and more than a hundred incarnations of Agent Smith from scratch inside the computer, superimposing the heads of Reeves and Weaving (which had been photographed for hours with high-resolution cameras) over the bodies of digitally re-created stunt-people. That meant the filmmakers could re-animate a move or plug in another camera angle almost as easily as I can strike out a paragraph on my word processor.
Again, the sequence should be the coolest thing ever. Neo leaps in the air, freezes, kicks one Agent Smith with his front leg and another with his back. He sends one Smith somersaulting into the far distance, does a back flip onto a wall, and sends another few in the direction of the camera, which is busy dive-bombing and swirling and whooshing around the action at speeds that would tear an ordinary camera apart. With the camera overhead, scores of Smiths pile on top of Neo, who blows the mound up with the force of his will, then soars into the sky like Superman.
The digital Neo looks like Keanu Reeves (who has a beautiful blankness to begin with), the digital Smiths look like Weaving (who has a malevolent blankness to begin with): You would hardly guess that these are simulated figures in simulated costumes. Even the fabric of Neo's cloak moves the way it would in real life. Amazing! What's more amazing is how little visceral kick it has. Remember that scene in The Fly (1986) when Geena Davis tries a teleported steak and shakes her head and says, "It tastes fake"? The Burly Brawl tastes fake. It isn't so much a great action sequence as a demonstration reel for a great new technology. It makes you think, "Let's play again!" The cheesy, tinny-sounding music doesn't help. I've heard better orchestrations coming out of Game Boys.
In Reloaded, Neo can fly around the Matrix in ways that remind even the other characters of Superman. Actually, he's Superpriest: Those long Chow-Yun-Fat-style coats have been replaced by a black cassock with a high cleric's collar. A bulletproof monk! The Matrix is basically his playpen now: He can look the way he wants, move the way he wants; he might even be able to bring back the dead. But his powers don't seem to turn him on. Neo the One is a dull, earnest boy, and Carrie-Anne Moss' Trinity has lost that mysterioso S&M vibe and become rather mushy and maternal.
It doesn't help that, after the opening flurry of action, the clutchy pair run aground in the underground city of Zion, where all the world's unplugged humans go to plan their guerrilla uprisings against the machines. The set is like a shopping mall in hell—multilevel corroded iron crammed with sweaty extras, with none of the bio-mechanical feel (inspired by graphic artist Geofrey Darrow) of the hovercrafts and invading "squiddies."
At first, the Zion scenes are merely lugubrious, with Morpheus, his ex-lover Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), and her pompous current lover Lock (Harry Lennix) speaking in formal, orotund diction that sounds like a very bad day on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. (Cornell West shows up in a cameo and fits right in: I guess that's the point.) Then we get a biblical epic, a ringing address by Morpheus ("I give you—MORPHEUS!") to the assembled hordes on the coming invasion of the Romans—I mean, the machines—that climaxes, "Tonight, let us tremble these walls. This is Zion—and WE ARE NOT AFRAID!!" This is the cue for a high-camp montage: a Fellini-esque slow-motion orgy intercut with Neo and Trinity making the beast with two backs. That sound you hear is Cecil B. DeMille whacking off in his grave.
Dull staging, tin-eared dialogue (I haven't even told you about Eurotrash king and queen of evil, played by Lambert Wilson and Monica Bellucci), bad acting: What went wrong? Have the Wachowskis been pickling in their own self-importance for too long? When they made the original, they'd come off their terrific low-budget lesbian noir Bound (1996), and they gave The Matrix a lean, no-nonsense, B-movie thrust. Here they seem to be bogged down by their budget and by Owen Paterson's top-heavy sets, and almost every sequence goes on for too long and to no particular end.
The minimal plot involves putting Neo back in the Matrix to find the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), who can take him to "the Source"—the inner core—of the simulated universe. Hold on, this is the scenario of a video game, with each level presenting new kung-fu adversaries and more fearsome obstacles. (Among them is a pair of dreadlocked albino twins who can materialize and dematerialize in wraithlike swirls of ecto-matter. They look great, but they have the personalities of twin Fabios.) The martial arts is laid on promiscuously and illogically, as in the most routine Hong Kong movies, and an almost half-hour highway sequence rumored to be miraculous is just another noisy car chase with people leaping off motorcycles and trucks or going the wrong way against oncoming traffic. It's often impressive (I thought, "Hmmm, that's impressive"), but it's nowhere near as startlingly kinetic as the climax of The Road Warrior (1981), in which the visual effects were primitive or nonexistent but the thing had a shape.
The climax of Reloaded—inside the Source—is designed to look like the end of 2001 (1968) and seem just as cosmic. In a sense, it is: It explodes a lot of the biblical mumbo-jumbo that has preceded it, forcing us to rethink the meaning of the prophecies that have guided all the actions of Morpheus—here a much more flagrant religious zealot. The question of free will versus destiny had always been a vexing one in the Wachowskis' universe: If part of mastering the Matrix was confronting the ways in which human beings had been, in essence, programmed, what did it mean that there was a higher sort of programming—as embodied by the Oracle and her infallible prophecies? Were the Wachowskis really doing a straight neo-Christian (so to speak) parable?
We can speculate on these things when you've seen the movie. And you will see it—and maybe even convince yourself it's spectacular. (Some people thought The Phantom Menace  was a good movie—there's a collective delusion for you.) But a bigger bang for your buck would be the Wachowskis' related package of nine short animated films, The Animatrix, which proves that peoplelike cartoons can be much more enlivening than cartoonlike people. In The Matrix, Neo broke through the artificial into the real; in The Matrix Reloaded, he's stuck in a bigger simulation, with no exit in sight.