Director: The Wachowskis
Writer: The Wachowskis
Producer: Joel Silver
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Randall Duk Kim, Daniel Bernhardt, Gloria Foster, Harold Perrineau, Lambert Wilson
Running Time: 138 min.
First things first: it is very fashionable to dislike The Matrix. I, for one, have long since grown sick and tired of arrogant, elitist followers of anime and Hong Kong action films constantly bitching about how the 1999 blockbuster “stole” (in truth: “used”) and “took credit for” (in fact: “popularized”) wire-enhanced martial arts choreography and various other visual touches, mistakenly believing that this “knowledge” makes them superior to the film’s enthusiastic fans.
Normally, I have no problem at all with crying foul when I see plagiarism and/or misplaced credit. There’s no force on Earth that can convince me that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon “pays homage” to The Hero of Swallow rather than flat-out stealing from it, and I share the opinion that cult favorite film “maker” Quentin Tarantino is little more than a charlatan and a rip-off artist. But the people who sneer at The Matrix so readily have a tendency to place a disproportionately large amount of emphasis on the action content…which, for a 136-minute movie, was far from excessive…ignoring the storyline and (yes, I’ll say it) ground-breaking visual effects which made the whole package so successful. I am reminded of my beloved Brotherhood of the Wolf and how it is often described…and dismissed…as a “kung fu werewolf movie”, a label so absurd that I have great difficulty believing that anyone who categorizes it as such has actually seen the film.
The fact is, The Matrix has been the subject of so much derision simply because it was…and is…popular. Some people just can’t stand a winner.
So, anyway. The Matrix Reloaded. Four years in coming, and I dare say it was worth the wait if you weren’t camped outside the theater for eight months or some silly shit like that. Whereas the original was, from my viewpoint, primarily a science-fiction movie with a significant action factor, Reloaded is more of a thinking person’s action film in a distinctly sci-fi setting. Accordingly, there’s more adrenaline this time around…a LOT more…and there is marked improvement in the skills of the martial arts-trained actors, especially Keanu Reeves. Producer/carnival barker Joel Silver’s claim that he (Reeves) could “take” Jet Li in single combat is still ridiculous, but someone whose only familiarity with both men was through their most recent releases could be forgiven for believing it. Why? Because the fights in The Matrix Reloaded, God be praised, do NOT have cuts every one and a half seconds. How refreshing it is to see an American-made film where it is understood that editing action scenes like MTV videos aimed at people with Attention Deficit Disorder diminishes the excitement rather than enhancing it. Compare this to Jet Li’s lackluster Romeo Must Die and abominable Cradle 2 the Grave (both of which, I hasten to add, were produced by Joel Silver), and Reeves comes out looking (just LOOKING, mind you) a hell of a lot smoother. After all, cinema is, among other things, an illusory art form. For me, it is sufficient to know that Silver’s comments are exaggeratory at best, fraudulent at worst. What do you expect? He’s a producer. Hype is a big part of his livelihood. The bright side: maybe Jet Li will stop making movies with him.
Now, speaking of fights. After a couple of satisfactory warm-ups, there’s the much-touted battle pitting Neo against an ever-increasing number of Agent Smith (Hugo “Elrond” Weaving, who for my money is the finest thespian in the cast) clones. Simply put (and yes, I’ll say “yes, I’ll say it” again): “Woah.” I’m sure there’s no shortage of willfully underwhelmed critics (or, perhaps, “critics”?) out there who turn their noses up at this scene, saying that it’s “too gimmicky” or what have you, but I have no reservations about calling it one of the most impressive action scenes of all time. I say “impressive” rather than “greatest” or “best” because of the sheer ambition required to bring it to the screen so successfully. Neo’s opposition grows from a small gang into a small army; to have them come after him as relentlessly as they do, instead of one at a time like the idiot thugs in other action movies, and to have it look and feel this good, is a hell of an achievement, CGI or no CGI. (The Smiths with whom Reeves directly interacts are Weaving and a handful of look-alikes in identical clothing; the background Smiths are computer-generated.) I was afraid…deathly afraid…that Neo would blithely swat aside every Smith in sight with minimal effort, thus ruining the kinetic suspense like a 21st century Bruce Lee, but he doesn’t. He has to fight like hell for every inch, and no sooner does he gain it than a dozen Smiths spring up to take it away. If I had a hat, it would be off to everyone involved.
A further note on CGI in fight scenes, or at least in this one: it’s fine to be a purist, but it’s not at all fine to be a snotty purist. You can prefer “shortcut-free” battles from the glory days of kung fu cinema (1970s and early 1980s) all you want, but credit is most definitely due here. There’s nothing wrong with drinking from two wells. I’m not some techno-junkie who can’t appreciate something “earthier” with more blood, sweat, and tears behind it, like the grueling climax of Drunken Master 2 or the Yuen Biao/Frankie Chan duel at the end of The Prodigal Son; but when it comes to that pumped-up, every-move-counts feeling that goes with a good, plot-relevant fight, as well as just plain being “into it”, Neo vs. The Smiths (the Agents, not the band) gets the nod. Think I’m an ignorant mainstream dolt who can’t discern gold from crap painted yellow? Bite me. That’s my opinion and I’m standing by it. (I’m also standing by my wildly unpopular view that The Prodigal Son is overrated AS A MOVIE, although, like anyone else with a brain in his or her head, I consider the aforementioned fight scene, in and of itself, a technical marvel.)
Later in the film is another well-executed skirmish, this time with Neo against the Merovingian’s sword, spear, axe, and mace-wielding henchmen in a lavish chamber with two staircases and lots of expensive-looking stuff just begging to be smashed. The Merovingian himself is an enigmatic character, something like the late Gloria Foster’s Oracle, but nowhere near as pleasant. Actor Lambert Wilson plays him like the living embodiment of the embarrassing, inaccurate American stereotype of the snooty, limpdick Frenchman. They shoulda got Vincent Cassel. Maybe they tried, and he didn’t want to do it, but his wife Monica Bellucci (whose screen time as Persephone is short but memorable) did, and that’s why they separated. I dunno. Nunna my bizniss.
Much has also been written of the epic car chase sequence, which took 45 days to film and had a triple-digit vehicular body count…like the fact that it took 45 days to film, and had a triple-digit vehicular body count. Morpheus and Trinity trying to keep The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) out of the clutches of two ghostly twin brothers (Adrian and Neil Rayment) who can’t be killed by conventional means, with the added threat of Agent Smith’s former brethren, makes for some solid thrills, including a frantic fight scene inside a speeding car. Morpheus finally blowing the twins’ vehicle to smithereens drew a round of applause from the otherwise quiet audience of which I was a part.
Following that is an oddly edited few minutes wherein Morpheus goes over his plan to bring the war between man and machine to an end. Further elaboration, I trust, is unnecessary (not to mention spoiler-ish); you’ve probably all seen the film anyway, and even if you haven’t, by now you must have made up your mind whether to see it or not.
Storywise, there’s still some stuff you need to wrap your head around, but there is also a slightly more in-your-face presentation and ligther tone. The Wachowskis are a little more intent on making you laugh this time around, mostly through bits of dialogue that wouldn’t be nearly as amusing if the shades-clad characters reciting them didn’t look so serious. Hugo Weaving gets the best line: “Me, too.”
Faults: There’s a regrettable dance sequence, periodically interrupted to show Neo and Trinity doing a dance of their own (I believe it’s the Hole Punch Boogie), which seems to have been included for little reason other than to exhibit the accompanying music. There are just one or two too many slow motion FX shots, as if the movie just can’t get enough of its own coolness (whether that coolness is perceived or genuine is a matter of personal taste). And what’s with the absence of Tank on screen and even in dialogue? You’d think that Morpheus would have at least sent him a fruit basket or something. Ah well, the guy was a pretty lousy actor anyway (not fit to share the stage with Keanu friggin’ Reeves, eh?).
If there’s a better action movie made with Hollywood money, I sure as hell haven’t seen it, and I don’t expect I ever will, with the exception of the unreleased-as-of-this-writing third and final installment, The Matrix Revolutions. What we have here is a film that couldn’t possibly live up to its hype (thanks a lot, Joel), but still deserves the huge success it is sure to enjoy and demands multiple viewings even more than its predecessor did. This, by fuck, is a job well done.
Numskull’s Rating: 9/10