The Matrix Reloaded
Back in what seems like another age, though it was only 1999, I was quite taken with the Wachowski brothers' first Matrix film, because it gave us an inventive conceit, some eye-popping effects (you'll believe a man can fly, even if he's not Superman or Michael Jordan, and even if he doesn't believe it himself) and a group of actors who treated the fantastic as though it were real life.
Now, though, "The Matrix Reloaded," the second of three in the series, has substituted cliché for plot and dull monologues for dialogue, relying on repetitively staged fights to give the film any kind of forward thrust. This time we are in and around Zion, the city of humans, deep inside the matrix created by the machines; and it seems a dull and dreary place indeed. Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and Neo's lover Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are following Morpheus's vision of how the humans are on the verge of beating the machines and breaking through the matrix to destroy it. But he may be wrong about that, and his mistake might cost the life of every human being. (I should point out that as the people hear his words they break into a huge dance, giving us the chance to see what is surely the world's largest mosh pit.)
There is a full complement of human team members, a la "Star Trek," and the interesting and very welcome thing about them is that they are mostly non-white. In addition to Fishburne, there are Harold Perrineau as Link, the computer controller, Jada Pinkett Smith as Niobe, former lover of Morpheus and now the lover of his antagonist Commander Lock (Harry Lennix), Gloria Foster as the Oracle, and Randall Duk Kim as the Keymaker. Not only that, the glimpses we get of the crowds show them also to be largely dark-skinned.
The problem is that they have so little to do. There's more plot in any one episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" than there is in the two and a quarter hours of "The Matrix Reloaded." So everyone here is running around talking about attack and defense (the machines are burrowing through the earth toward Zion and expect to reach and destroy it in the next 36 hours), but there's no tension associated with it. Instead, old Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith keeps showing up in multiple image, to be fought off again and again. Surely at least one of the Wachowskis could have thought up a new idea and inserted it here.
Too little of what happens in the film comes as a result of what happened before. It's as though the Wachowskis invented a dozen visually-exciting sequences without bothering to give them a coherent linkage. We just sit back and watch the parade of tableaux, separated by the stunt fights and the occasionally titillating moments of lovemaking between Neo and Trinity. The good ideas - and there are some - are never followed up. At one point the little group meets Persephone (Monica Bellucci), who says that she will give the group their necessary information, but only on condition that Neo kiss her like he kisses Trinity. Sparks fly as Moss tries to control her jealous rage - it's just a kiss, after all - but poor Keanu Reeves almost fails the test anyway. He is surely the star with the least sex appeal of anyone working in films today.
The big acton set piece is a 14-minute chase by 18-wheeler and other vehicles with fights going on above them. But we have seen so many similar stunts in other recent films that this one has little or no impact. And in the film's penultimate scene, a confrontation between Neo and the Architect of the matrix (Helmut Bakaitis), everything grinds to a halt while Bakaitis relieves himself of an endless, dreary monologue about his work, and how there have already been six incarnations of the matrix. As he talks, we see the energy slowly drain out of the film, and it's unlikely to be revived until November, when Part Three is released. Don't hold your breath.