I suppose it's impossible, given four years of anticipation and the importance of its groundbreaking predecessor, that The Matrix Reloaded could possibly live up to the expectations that have been set. Yet despite a few thrilling action sequences and some surprises in the plot department, it's almost shocking just how unsatisfying the new film is.
What should have built on the wondrous achievements of the original is a talky, exposition-filled bore, interrupted only intermittedly by exciting action and entertaining scenes. It's not a disapointment on the level of the last two Star Wars films - but it's close.
Upon its release in 1999, The Matrix outdid that year's long-awaited Star Wars prequel both financially and in the imagination of the film-going public - sci-fi geeks especially. In the four years since, the technical innovations of the original film have both been ripped off by other sci-fi films and parodied by feeble-minded comedies (like Scary Movie) both with the misguided belief that recognition equals entertainment. Given virtually unlimited resources and time to make not one, but two sequels, on top of countless video game and comic book tie-ins, the Wachowski brothers (who directed the films) have been faced with the added challenge of topping themselves.
In that task they succeed only from time to time in the new film. The action scenes, especially a state-of-the-art fourteen-minute chase scene, live up to their billing and manage, for once, to give the audience the same "wow" of which the first Matrix was so full. And the performances are strong across the board, especially by the great Oz actor Harold Perrineau, sexy Italian actress Monica Bellucci as a seductress within the Matrix, and even Keanu Reeves himself, playing really the only character for whom his blank acting style is just right.
But unfortunately, the great moments in Reloaded are few and far between. A fight between Neo (Keanu Reeves) and hundreds of clones of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) is fun, but looks more like a video game than a movie. And our first glimpse of Zion, the last human city, is impressive enough - but since it wasn't seen in the first film and we've been waiting four years to see it, we can't help but be disapointed that it's not absolutely wondrous.
One of the biggest problems with the film is just too much darn talk. In the first Matrix a certain amount of explanatory dialogue was necessary in order to introduce the new world - but in Reloaded the philosophy (especially out of the mouth of Laurence Fisburne-as-Morpheus) comes across as nothing more than longwinded psychobabble - and I couldn't tell you what half of it means. Numerous characters show up, give long speeches, and then are never heard from again; the exposition-to-action ratio is consiberably larger than in the original, a rarity for a sequel. Even worse, the one character we love to hear speak - Hugo Weaving's dryly amusing Agent Smith - barely speaks at all, except for one sequence that's the film's biggest laugh: "You." "Yes, me. Me, me, me, me." "Me too."
Even worse, the Matrix characters do things in the new film (curse, have sex, give the finger) that they didn't do in the first, tearing down a necessary wall and making the characters less believable as living in another world. There's also a pointless cameo by celebrity intellectual Cornel West, as well as a Jar Jar-like character (The Kid) who we just know is in line for an all-too-huge role in the third picture.
It's also more than a little bothersome that while the first film was seen by many as a strike back at corporate authority, with The Matrix standing in for corporate enslavement of our daily lives. The Matrix Reloaded comes along with merchandise tie-ins with Coca-Cola and Heineken, as well as two cover stories each in Time and Entertainment Weekly, both corporate siblings within AOL Time Warner of Warner Bros. pictures. Somehow none of this really seems to "tie in" with the spirit of the film itself.
What the Wachowskis accomplished with their first "Matrix" film was such a leap over the other sci-fi films of the time, that anything less than yet another leap of that side looks like an artistic failure, by the standards of the ever-demanding fanboy community. By that standard Reloaded, for all the hundreds of millions of dollars it will make worldwide and for all the excitement it contains, will never be anything close to the achievement that its predecessor was.