TheMatrix Reloaded: We waited four years for this?
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.