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I'm almost hesitant to review The Matrix Reloaded, having only seen it once. There's this funny little voice in the back of my head that keeps screaming, "You'll like it better if you see it again!" But for what it's worth, Reloaded is a solid success, with only few inescapable exceptions.
Exceptions? Yep and ok maybe more than just a few. If you're a Matrix fan, as I am, then skip right to the end and save yourself what is bound to be an annoying level of negativity.
Most of it stems simply from the fact that this is a sequel. Not in the sense that this is part 2, we all know that, but in the sense that this is not just a continuation of the first, but an entirely new movie. Some franchise movies are one big flick broken up into multiple parts, Lord of the Rings standing as a prime example. Others, like this summer's smash X2 pick up their predecessor's story right where it left off, keeping the audience clued in on everything in between, and subsequently carrying over all the emotions we built up from viewing the first film. Reloaded though, is a sequel. Since we left, things have happened, people have changed, and a wisecracking black guy has been not-so-digitally inserted into the primary crew. (Hey, why didn't Link get a poster??)
So it's a sequel. So what' So The Matrix is not one continuous story. All the wonderment and magic of the first movie doesn't carry right on over into this one. We weren't along for the entire ride and we're left starting again. Only now we're past that initial philosophical shock that questioned our perceptions of reality and control' which means we lose at least some element of the original's fun. We missed out on all the growth these people have gone through. Neo (Keanu Reeves) no longer says "whoa". He's cagey. He's mature. He's a veteran and there's no more surprise for him' or for us. Or perhaps surprise is the wrong word. A better one is wonderment. Wonderment is what we have lost, for Reloaded still has plenty of smaller surprises to offer.
This time , rather than wandering about "whoaing", Neo has a specific purpose, in the form of a quest to hunt down the keys to saving earth's last human city, Zion. The machines have started digging their way right down to their home, with a whole truckload of sentinels in tow. Morpheus is convinced that only the One can save them, but bitter Zion general dude thinks all their ships should unite to fight against the machine attack. Saying anything at all more would make me a criminal, just keep your eyes open and hang on for what happens.
Visually, Reloaded is a stunning film, with a perfect blending of models and nearly seamless cgi amidst beautiful production design. But you expect that, this is a Matrix movie, and that means things are done to the nth dimension of slick. They've blown out all the stops, with some fantastical technical sequences that will linger in your mind long after the movie is over. The docking sequence where the Nebuchadnezzer returns to Zion is one of the more eye popping quiet moments in the film, along with all the insanely frenetic action zingers like Trinity and Morpheus' mad battle across an outrageously busy highway.
That's not to say Reloaded is nothing but a cold and empty bag of technical wizardry. In that sense it surpasses the original, bringing a greater level of depth and personality to familiar characters than the introductory nature of the first film allowed for. This is especially true in the case of Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who develops as an imperfect individual, rather than just some all knowing father figure/spiritual leader. Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) benefit too, their love deepened and broadened into a more meaningful relationship, defined by lots of sweat and trading of spit. The only characters that don't benefit are those who disappeared. Tank for instance has um' vanished. Someone alludes to his being dead but he along with a lot of things seems to have just been strangely forgotten.
I think I'm sounding disappointed again. Maybe I am in some small measure. The thing is, Reloaded is not in any way bad. Most of the time it is very good and you'll see a lot of things that will have you blathering over just how cool this movie makes cool. The first 45 minutes are exposition and it is a long trip to get to the cool, but even that 45 is interesting just because it stops to smell the roses and let us see the people in this film. Then again, isn't The Matrix all about pulse pounding action surpassed only by a pulse pounding plot' This movie is much more conventional, sticking to more tried and true formulas, to its own detriment. Maybe I'm stressing because the end of the first film promised so much, that final phone call from Neo, that final challenge'. which he honestly just never lives up to. He doesn't free minds; he doesn't wake up the world. Instead he goes on a quest that is altogether something less.
So if you sit through 45 minutes of decently interesting talking, you get to the fights. When the Oracle appears things get really exciting. We get the battles we've wanted to see' the best parts of which you've seen in the previews, but brilliant nonetheless. More is the watchword. Lots more. More Agent Smiths (Huge Weaving), more Kung Fu's. I can't fault that, it makes for great watching, I dig it, and I can't wait to dig it again. Some of these fights are pointless, and serve little purpose within the film, but well done nonetheless. The cgi is expectedly brilliant. They've nearly made cgi PEOPLE that don't look cgi. Note I said nearly, because there are still plenty of times when you can tell what is real and what is not. That having been said this is mostly better effects work than you've seen from everyone else. The exception to that being one particular fight scene (you'll know it when you get there) that looks for all the world like it was filmed in front of the world's cheapest blue screen' which probably it was.
More also means there isn't much that's really all that new. Just Kung Fu. Lots of Kung Fu. More Kung Fu that never seems to truly make an impact on what it hits. This thing is rated R, how about a little more umpf behind those punches' Maybe a bruise or two' The battles, while great, aren't even against the big bad guys, just wannabe red shirts sent out to do dirty work. Its fun, but ultimately, where is this thing going' The first movie made the smart, scary choice at every turning point. Reloaded instead opts for the safe ones. The result is still in its own way great, with cheeky little nuances that I'm still sorting out. The effects, even though the choices that lead to them are not, are at least smart. My particular favorite being a half second shot from the Agent Smith Crotch Cam as he plummets towards the earth with Neo in his smartly soled sites. Stuff like that might really knock your socks off even when the movie itself is technically playing it safe.
The worst for me is the music, which used to be an integral part of what made The Matrix THE MATRIX. That ultra-undeground reality that only a disturbed bit of hyper-techno can really convey. Now it's just generic orchestral; background and filler that hardly matches up to what better conductors like John Williams have done for decades in the genre. Gone is the hard hitting techno cool of the previous film. Yeah they drop in some light beats when it counts, but its almost out of habit rather than some burning, stylistic need. Again, it isn't terrible, just not at all cool in the way it once was. It has become more traditional, almost like the score from Star Wars plus a few songs from any random dance club. The musical identity of The Matrix was lost, right along with the guys of techno band 'Prodigy'.
But hey, it isn't like things have gone down the toilet. Most of the new characters are great, if underused. Monica Bellucci is merely a footnote who serves no real purpose other than to annoy Trinity, but she makes a great impression in the time she's there. Link is the new wisecracking black guy, whose role could have been ridiculously cliché; actor Harold Perrineau, Jr. makes sure it is not.
The best new bit is the expansion of the Oracle, who is unabashadely delightful when she shows up. That's bittersweet, since the actress who played her passed before the third installment was finished. Watch part two with the knowledge that the best thing about it will not be back for the third installment. Replaced by a stand in' Perhaps.
For a fan like me, it's just good to see this world back on the screen. Since The Matrix debuted, bullet time has been copied to the point of exhaustion, yet somehow in the hands of its progenitors, it seems luscious, vibrant, and new. This is the ulimate in slick movie making. The Wachowski Brothers' style and flair remain whatever nitpicks sad minded critics like me might throw at it. Reloaded is a joyous pile of Kung Fu techno magic in its own right, a blessed rapture of mind and sight. With a third and potentially slightly better installment on the horizon to wrap this tale up, I'm more than happy to have that.
Reloaded doesn't live up to all expectations, but is still one of the best things I've seen so far this year. The frenetic action from the first is still in, the ending is a head twister of a cliffhanger, and there's plenty of special effects wizardry to suck just about anyone in. What's lost is the intangible, the wonder, and maybe just a little bit of the charm that only newness can bring. That only means that unlike the original, this is not one of the best films ever made. But wasn't that too much to expect from anything?