Review: “The Matrix Reloaded”

We’ve been kind of spoiled lately in regards to major action/fantasy movie sequels with both “The Two Towers” and “X2” proving as good as if not better than their predecessors, and now along comes ‘Reloaded’ which sadly fails to join that category.

1999’s “The Matrix” was a visually cool fusion of Hong Kong action, leather, and genre sci-fi which surprised many people – sure it followed the same ‘chosen one discovers himself’ religious metaphor storyline which many a sci-fi adventure had trodden countless times before, but there was something compelling about its questioning of existence and its setup that reality was just a computer program designed by machines to keep humans under control.

The action from an initial rooftop chase to a kung fu dojo fight had a feeling of freshness about it and added to the story which admittedly got a little heavy on the exposition at times but set things up pretty clearly and cleverly.

‘Reloaded’ on the other hand, whilst having some jaw dropping sequences, is a rather convoluted mess which alternates between long gaps of spelled out plot-driven dialogue or pointless philosophising, and action packed fight sequences of such an elaborate nature that their concept is ultimately more exciting than their very slick but somewhat flat execution.

Like ‘Two Towers’ this throws you right into the action and expects you to not only remember the big points but lots of small details from the first one so the average punter who has not watched it in a while should rewatch the old one otherwise they’ll get lost quite quickly. Lets start with the most basic problem before we move into the more detailed ones, and that is simply that the Real World is so much more boring than the Matrix.

With the exception of the very start, the opening 40 minutes is set in and around Zion – a kind of ‘Beyond Thunderdome’ post-apocalyptic world where various characters from the jealous military commander to standard elderly bureaucrat talk, and talk, and talk some more although they really have nothing to say.

Whether it be the annoying kid with hero worship and the oh so woeful ‘we will resist’ rallying speech to the badly acted pissed off wife who doesn’t like her husband being out on duty so much, this feels more like a really dull “Star Trek” bottle episode than one of the most expensive movies ever made (in fact without the standard and somewhat cartoony “Star Wars”-esque establishing scenery FX shot every two minutes this is almost “Days of our Lives Underground”).

The tribal-rhythm themed rave party scene swaps between transparently clothed sweaty body grinding to the underwhelming one-on-one sex between the pale black-haired emaciated waifs Neo & Trinity (who are starting to look so much like brother & sister it’s kind of creepy).

Thankfully the story quickly picks up as Neo enters the Matrix and starts his quest although its not a very linear one as the objective of the characters seems to change about every half hour.

Along the way though the supporting characters are what really help make this a memorable adventure, the most notable of which being Hugo Weaving who’s returned as the now free agent Smith who has a new ability to copy himself and its this rogue nature which makes him not only unpredictable but one of the few ‘fresh’ things about the movie.

A scene in which at first a dozen, then twenty, then over a hundred copies of Smith battle it out on a vacant lot with Neo is easily the most impressive and enjoyable action sequence of the whole film (even the freeway chase lacks the quirkiness this scene brings to the table) and the character utilises his screentime quite well.

Newcomers also add to this – Monica Bellucci as the somewhat dark seductress Persephone and Lambert Wilson as the arrogant Merovingian appear and dominate the screen for about 20 minutes in the film’s most unusual sequences which plays more like a European comedy than comic book sci-fi but oddly enough in between the French cursing and dessert gag it actually works.

Randall Kim makes the essentially small Keymaker role into something quite likeable, however the much touted ‘Twins’ are one-note henchman with about one line of dialogue and nothing special short of their overly used immaterial ghost trick and a penchant for old fashioned barber razors as weapons.

Jada Pinkett-Smith did better than I expected and has a well-kept fierceness to her character, whilst Helmut Bakaitis does an interesting job in the strange and philosophy heavy meeting scene with ‘The Architect’. The rest of the supporting cast from Clayton Watson as the kid to Steve Bastoni as Capt. Soren are a complete white wash though – it really gets like bad sci-fi cable TV at times in Zion.

The regulars lack the spark or fun of their previous encounter. The wise Morpheus has just become a grandstander interested only in the sound of his own voice. All the growth and change Neo went through in the first film seems to have been retracted somewhat and his character stays essentially the same throughout.

Trinity has gone from cool stylish babe with a heart to ice queen extraordinare. Short of the aforementioned Weaving, the only one who continues to impress is Gloria Foster who makes a welcome one scene return as the wise but humoured Oracle – it’s not till her scene in fact the movie starts having any real life (she’s preceded by a useless fight scene between Neo & her aide ‘Seraph’).

The action is ultimately disappointing – with the sole exception of that Neo vs. many Smiths fight, the kung fu action is impressive technically but feels so rehearsed and stilted that you don’t care. It is also overused to the point that everything settles in a predictable pattern so that you get one at least every 20 minutes and none of them really have any heft as they become overused and monotonous.

The freeway chase is long and flat – from the bad blue screen of a truck top fight to a car interior fight with a Twin it all seems like overkill – the sole exception is Trinity and the Keymaker’s motorbike chase into oncoming traffic, its probably because it is a wild real stunt rather than FX trickery that it at least gives the impression of real danger.

The FX though for all their wildness are of top quality and its really hard to spot any seams or rough edges to them. There’s a penchant for philosophy even more this time around – the first film was all about the nature of existence, this time it all about the nature of free will and choice, with various characters from The Oracle to Merovingian to The Architect going on and on about it in more increasingly complex ways.

Up till near the end I had no problem understanding it even though others around me were scratching heads, when the film explodes into one of the longest monologues you’ll ever hear it does get somewhat jumbled though I got the point, but even those with a penchant for existentialism will have difficulty keeping up let alone the general public.

As the Wachowski’s are well known for loving the subject, these frequent complete stops in the story to indulge in some banal attempt to explain Life, The Universe & Everything feels like a big indulgent wank on their part to the point I was worried this was turning into something along the lines of that utter piece of self-loving crap that was “Vanilla Sky”.

The anti-climactic ending may also upset some as it really ends at an odd spot (a few minutes earlier would’ve been better). I know people are going to use the old excuses ‘it is only half a movie’ or ‘the middle part of a trilogy’ to cover some of the faults but that’s an utter cop out – those wannabe filmmakers who do tend to use it should watch more multi-year arcing genre television, they may learn a thing or two about effective linear storytelling).

The “Star Wars” and “Back to the Future” movies ended on cliffhanging second movies and yet everyone is more than happy to judge their film entries separately. ‘Reloaded’ should stand on its own, and it does albeit on creaky legs. The ordinary heavy rock score and quick cut editing don’t help though. Am I being too hard on it? Maybe.

As much as there’s some glaring faults there’s also quite a bit to like here. The first hour may be almost a total wash but the rest can get quite compelling at times. It’s overly talky, looks great, feels somewhat cold, most certainly indulgent and will no doubt make a lot of money as despite its problems I would go see it again soon in an effort to try and see if I missed anything that may help comprehend it better.

The first film I wasn’t majorly impressed by the first time I saw it in a cinema either, it took several post-hype viewings on DVD before I really appreciated it and came to look above its faults. It’s just a little sad when the spectacular teaser for ‘Revolutions’ at the end of the credits was better than anything in ‘Reloaded’.

So compared to the first film and the hype it’s a disappointment, compared to the average Summer blockbuster it’s at least trying to be something more but does it in the wrong way, compared to movies this year so far its better than average. Entertaining with a few eyebrow raising moments but ultimately nothing special. Skip the first 45 minutes and learn up your Jean-Paul Satre or Friedrich Nietzche and you’ll probably enjoy it more. Its got some great moments but the Gestalt theory doesn’t apply here.