The Wachowski brothers' kick-ass cyber-noir sequel bows to mainstream demands but still delivers

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Score 3

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Let’s Get Metaphysical

DIRECTED BY Andy and Larry Wachowski

STARRING Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving Opened May 23, Cert 15, 218 mins

The matrix reinvented sci-fi blockbusters for post-ironic, post-modern, non-linear future-kids. The best philosophical hip hop kung-fu cyber-noir mega-epic ever to namedrop hip cultural theorists, Greek mythology and Hong Kong action movies, it was our generation’s Blade Runner meets Alien meets The Terminator with a heady extra dash of underground sex’n’drugs kool. It may have been comic-book pulp at heart, but it was boundary-pushing, reality-warping pulp of the highest intensity

Perhaps inevitably, The Matrix Reloaded is a very different beast. Four years in the making, shot back to back with The Matrix Revolutions, the second in the trilogy is a jaw-dropping feast of mental acrobatics and cutting-edge technology. But it inevitably lacks some of the edgy freshness of the original, bowing instead to mainstream action thriller conventions. There are far too many minor new characters here whose sole purpose seems, Phantom Menace-style, to sell more action figures. There is also too little exploration of the infinite allegorical possibilities of the Matrix itself. Is it a political metaphor? Metaphysical puzzle? Mass hallucination? This time around, it feels like little more than a video game platform.

A lean and pale Keanu returns as Neo, the hacker-Messiah now wearing priestly robes to denote his quasi-spiritual Jedi-like status. Now officially partnered with Trinity (Moss) and supernatural sidekick to Morpheus (Fishburne), Neo is charged with saving the underground human enclave of Zion from a massive attack by Matrix machines?a showdown which, teasingly, the Wachowskis postpone until the next movie. He also appears to have acquired superheroic powers, which make him less vulnerable and less interesting. At one point, Neo saves the life of a dying friend after a fatal shoot-out inside the Matrix. But if he can rewrite the rules like that, surely the trilogy’s carefully constructed internal logic falls apart? Clumsy.

But no matter, because the good stuff here is state-of-the-art turbo-nutter shit par excellence. The action set-pieces especially make you want to stand up and cheer, beginning with a gravity-defying martial arts street battle between Neo and an ever-increasing army of Agent Smith replicants. The audacious and unnerving spectacle of several dozen Hugo Weavings moving in dynamic unison like a flock of birds is pure surrealist nightmare meets pop art collage, like Being John Malkovich crossed with Terminator 2. Attack of the clones indeed.

The other magnificent stunt sequence is a 15-minute road chase, which was staged on a loop highway on a disused US Navy base, taking 45 days and a staggering $40 million to complete. In this superbly orchestrated crescendo of heavy machinery and balletic violence, Trinity blasts the wrong way up a busy freeway on a supercharged motorbike while Morpheus fights off Agent Smith and other devious cyber-monsters from the roof of a speeding container truck. This hyper-intense orgy of destruction totalled 300 cars and almost justifies The Matrix Reloaded on its own. Which is just as well, because when the Wachowskis switch from mechanised carnage to human drama they quickly get bogged down in routine love triangles, family values and professional rivalries. Soap opera stuff, in other words. Even the erotic tension between Neo and Trinity has evolved into a boring Hollywood fantasy of gooey-eyed marital bliss. Sure, they get to shag each other, but in a tastefully lit missionary clinch with no hint of the S&M overtones which rippled through the first film. Shame.

In rock’n’roll terms, The Matrix Reloaded is far more heavy metal than techno. Sadly, the original film’s pop-savvy cyberpunk ethos has been trampled underfoot by stampeding nu-metal and stodgy geezer-techno bollocks like Paul Oakenfold. The much-praised “rave” scene in a vast subterranean cathedral looks like nothing more than a Club Megadog student-crusty white-rasta knees-up from 1992. Ugh. Most damningly, this lurch towards the mainstream appears to have diminished the film’s intellectual and literary horizons. The Matrix was ablaze with allusions to Alice In Wonderland, Jean Baudrillard, Guy D