blah blah blah Incredible Action!
Movies with huge fanboy-cult potential like The Matrix Reloaded can -- and will -- be critiqued in one of two ways: (1) as a self-contained movie judged by the same standards used for every other movie out there, with attention to flow, acting, production, etc.; and (2) as a story meeting the requirements and expectations of rabid fans of the series -- is the story good enough to be worthy of the brand, acceptable enough to withstand tough fan expectations? In the case of this second movie in The Matrix trilogy, as much fun as it is, I believe a noticeable letdown will be felt in both areas.
Such disappointment may be inevitable because the expectations for this movie are so ridiculously high -- after all, the flick is actually quite enjoyable, but it's neither as juicy nor as well-constructed as it deserves to be. In critiquing it as a "self-contained movie," I find it structurally mimicking the basic kung-fu movie formula, i.e., plot serves mainly as filler to space apart the action sequences. This pattern sticks out even more than usual in The Matrix Reloaded because both the filler and the action are such opposite extremes, creating a ping-pong battle between slowly-spoken philosophical mumbo-jumbo and some truly explosive action cinema. It literally feels something like this: blah blah blah blah blah Incredible Action! blah blah blah Incredible Action! blah blah Incredible Action! blah blah blah blah.
I'm not exaggerating when I use the word "Incredible" -- if this movie has anything going for it, it's the action sequences. Not only are the fights choreographed like graceful, computer-assisted dances, the ideas behind them are quite inventive. Neo (Keanu Reeves) fighting the Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) horde is worth the ticket price alone, and it's followed up by a fantastic freeway chase that includes big rigs, motorcycles, phantoms, and samurai swords. Yet that nagging kung-fu formula gives me pause because it exposes how the plot appears to serve the the action sequences, and not the other way around. Consider Neo's battle with Merovingian's (Lambert Wilson) warriors -- it's kicked off by a character's whim; the story could have functioned equally well without that sequence, and several of the others.
For other action movies, plot deficiencies like this wouldn't be a problem -- in fact, any of them would kill to have the dazzle of Reloaded's set pieces. However, The Matrix is also loved for the story behind its action. The first movie's exploration of the idea that our reality is a big fake created intriguing science fiction, and so -- here's where we bring up the second critiquing standard -- how does the expansion of The Matrix's story stack up? What writer/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski decide to try here is a little risky.
If you were disturbed by one of the noted failures of The Phantom Menace -- its "scientific" explanation concerning why some beings had more potential than others to wield The Force -- you have reason to be worried about The Matrix Reloaded. Both Star Wars and The Matrix appeal to a movie-fan's love of mythology. The Force was something beyond explanation, something mystical, and fans liked it that way; thus, when the "midichlorian" idea was introduced, it destroyed many of its mythological aspects. Likewise, The Matrix features characters and events just beyond the grasp of technical explanation -- Morpheus's (Laurence Fishburne) belief in the prophecy, Neo's being a "Chosen One," and the Oracle (Gloria Foster). Do we necessarily want a scientific explanation for these things?
Well, like it or not, that's what we get, and much of the explanations are in terms that may fly over most moviegoers' heads. By the time the film reaches its climax, we get a speech so ensconsed in cyber-babble, the inclination to tune it all out becomes almost irresistible. In fact, most of the talk in the movie feels like jibber-jabber that missed the final cut of Waking Life. It drags the pacing down badly, especially in the first half (which also displays how much influence Star Trek had on the Wachowski Brothers). Then the movie commits the error of ending on a heavy-handed note that left me scratching my head instead of cheering for more.
Still, the Wachowski Brothers deserve the chance to deliver this project through to its end (the third movie is due out this November). Unfortunately, they fill the substance-side of their action movie with stuff that, frankly, only sounds deep -- most of it is merely dressing for the idea that "love and free will are what make us human." They have created a tale about saving humanity in which the human characters are stiff and ponderous while the non-human characters have all the colorful personalities. But maybe they've got a great finale in store for us. Part of me wants to applaud the Wachowskis for having the courage to potentially alienate their fans with techno-speak in order to stay true to their story and their vision. After all, their vision of The Matrix is what ultimately sold the product in the first place -- it was a movie with a distinct, stylized look and feel best described as anime come to life. The Matrix Reloaded does more than its fair share to deliver this style to its fans; hopefully, the next movie will have a plot that can stand up to the Incredible Action.
P.S. If you can make it through eight minutes of end credits, you'll be rewarded with a teaser for The Matrix Revolutions.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "R" for sci-fi violence and some sexuality.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.