Combine Dark City, any John Woo film, The Terminator, a dash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a pinch of Japanese anime and those holodecks from "Star Trek: TNG", and you'll get "The Matrix" - a fast, high-concept sci-fi thriller with some superb visuals, intriguing possibilities but still somewhat lacking a cohesive story to pull it all together.
Starting off with a confusing opening action sequence, it takes about half an hour to really settle in and understand what's going on (when Laurence Fishburne appears, things start becoming clear). From there in it really is a rollercoaster ride thanks to a fast pace, unusual camerawork and imaginative FX. On the acting front, most of the performances are quite enjoyable - Reeves' role is understated and mainly physical, perfect for his kind of acting.
Fishburne plays the 'mentor' kind of character which is fairly standard, but his talent adds some extra weight to it. Carrie-Ann Moss is surprisingly quite effective as the mysterious 'Trinity'. In fact both Fishburne and Moss are far more interesting characters in the beginning when there's a sense of mystery about them, a sense lost as we go further along which makes them less engaging.
Hugo Weaving may be a new face to US audiences, but he's almost a veteran here - one of the most talented Aussie actors ever. As Agent Smith in this, he seems to revel playing the one-dimensional bad guy who delivers some of the film's dryest one-liners as well as one of the most unusual accents of any character in recent film history (for the record its Canadian, but I sensed a dash of British in there as well as one or two words which he slipped up on allowing his Aussie accent to poke through).
None of the supporting cast sticks out in mind except the woman who played 'The Oracle'.The action sequences throughout the film range from superb to poor. Highlights include a fantastic jujitsu training session between Reeves and Fishburne, and a stunning helicopter/skyscraper rescue sequence.
On the poor side, various shootouts seem ripped out of Hong Kong action movies (ie. multiple guns per person with people shooting everything in sight), a technique which is good to start off with but quickly becomes boring because its done numerous times over and over again (though I admit there is one quick shootout just before the helicopter takes off that surprised the hell out of me and was very cool). Also it seems kind of surprising that such an epic sci-fi film relies on the bland idea of conventional gunfights when there could've been so much more.
There are two main problems with "The Matrix". First is the sense of unoriginality, not only in the style but in the action sequences, dialogue, and certain scenes throughout the film. For example here are a few quotes - "Destroy Them", "I can only show you the door, you have to walk through it", "It's the question that drives us", etc.
By amalgamating all sorts of bits from other films - kung fu fighting, shoot em ups, sci-fi splatter gore, VR thrillers, etc. - it gels surprisingly well but still can't overcome a sense of deja vu about proceedings and fails to create a distinct style of its own (with the exception of those slow-mo camera techniques). Nevertheless the Wachowskis do have enough unusual visuals and sequences in there to keep you surprised and have built a 'world' which is interesting enough that one would like to see more of it.
The second problem is the ending (spoilers begin), now I can accept continuity gaps and illogical things in films that would make others balk, but when Moss TALKS Reeves back to life? Oh come on. Also the Reeves-Weaving subway fight is not needed and just seems like padding in an already overly long film.(spoilers end).
Other faults are simply technical glitches - visuals a little TOO dark, middle section a bit slow, action too confusingly fast at points, the FX squid critters look very computer-generated, and various shots really giveaway this film was shot in Sydney (you can see Centerpoint Tower in one scene for christ sake).
All these faults though are relatively minor. "The Matrix" is fun, and while it may confuse you first time around, a second viewing is really required to get the full 'entertainment' value out of it. Is it the "most dynamic sci-fi since Blade Runner"? Hardly as it rips off from other sources too much to have its own style.
But its definitely one of the best sci-fi films in the last few years (in the same league with the adventurous "Star Trek: First Contact" and the deliciously black humoured "Starship Troopers"), and is one of those films which may leave you feeling a bit confused upon leaving the cinema but does grow on you quickly as your brain has time to process what it saw. One thing we can all agree on is that we can't wait to see what the Wachowski's brothers come up with next (they should be the guys doing the next Batman film).