It takes my old computer about five minutes to restart, so it’s no surprise that it took the Wachowski brothers a few years to reload the Matrix. They’ve spent their time well, producing a sequel that feels more like a continuation of the original film than a revisiting of the same concepts and characters. It doesn’t have that “same steak rechewed” feel that the latest Bond or Halloween picture has, which may disappoint some viewers who need sequels to reproduce the exact experience of an original.
One factor of The Matrix that always played a bit off for me was the way the enslavement of mankind was explained – the humans “scorched the sky” to cut off solar power from the machines, and in response the machines bred most of the human race in captivity as “human batteries” for power, keeping them alive but unknowingly subservient via an artificial environment called the Matrix. Why not use a more efficient power plant like cattle or elephants – were all other species wiped out by the war? For that matter, why not tap the planet’s abundant geothermal power (as the citizen’s of the last free city Zion are seen doing here), or some other less complicated and troublesome source? It all seemed pretty illogical.
Reloaded gets around to providing an answer to that mystery, but you may just miss it. Most viewers can just sit back and enjoy the fireworks, which are abundant. Some time after The Matrix, it’s learned that the machines have found the location of Zion and sent a huge army of robots to dig down to it. While various shaky defenses are prepared, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and his fellow believers hold out faith in the prophecies of The Oracle (Gloria Foster), bucking the system to await her word. Neo (Keanu Reeves) has become a Matrix superhero, able to fly and stop bullets in midair, but oddly still finds it necessary to engage his enemies in kung fu pugilism. Though mighty and confident, he still has a slight air of confusion – ending the war has to be more complex than simply “beating the machines”, but he can’t figure his place in things, and is still unsure whether he’s acting on his own will or just fulfilling Fate. After all, isn’t Fate just another form of slavery? He has a meeting with the Oracle and learns, among other things, that the key to getting to the Matrix mainframe is in the possession of the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim of The Replacement Killers), one of many unusual new programs we meet living in the Matrix. He also meets Smith (Hugo Weaving) again, who is no longer an Agent, transformed by his last encounter with Neo into a more rebellious program. He’s still out to get our heroes though, and is now able to copy himself over others, producing an army of Smiths. Neo, Morpheus and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) need to free the Keymaker from rogue program Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his gang, but only do so with the help of their foe’s sexy wife Persephone (Monica Belluci). Once they’ve got him, getting the Keymaker to the heavily-guarded back door corridor of the Matrix is an even tougher job, especially with Agents joining Merovingian’s occult killers along the way. Making matters worse is the fact that Neo has had a recurring nightmare that his beloved Trinity will die on this mission.
All the complications and deep background of the story make it necessary that from time to time somebody has to stop the action and just tell us what’s going on. This can grate a bit – these scenes feel like molasses next to the insane action in between, but just shut up and take a breath while you catch up. In these movies, another gunfight or explosion is always just around the corner. The Wachowskis buck Hollywood “wisdom” here, setting kung fu genius Yuen Woo-ping loose to not only create superpowered fight scenes that last more than 30 seconds, but some of the greatest masterpieces of his career. See Neo fight hundreds of Smiths. See Neo fight Merovingian’s vampire master killers. See Neo fight Hong Kong star Ngai Sing. See Morpheus fight an Agent on top of a speeding 18-wheeler. And the action isn’t confined to punches and kicks – we get tons more chases, explosions and gunfire, all shot with an advanced new form of motion capture that lets the Wachowskis send their camera anywhere in a scene that they want to go. The centerpiece of the film is a stunning chase sequence in which Morpheus and Trinity try to take Keymaker down the dangerous Matrix freeway with Agents and Ghosts in very hot pursuit, while Neo has been teleported 500 miles away.
The Matrix changed f/x action movies forever, so the Wachowskis answer a very serious challenge here to outdo themselves in the sequel. For the most part, they’ve done so, delivering jaw-dropping stuff while keeping their storytelling fluid. Even with Neo clad in a black cassock, you rarely lose sight of where he is while attacked by the black-suited Smith army. The only problem here is that, what with providing the middle chapter in a trilogy and needing to keep a complex narrative afloat, sometimes the film loses its center. The super-Neo is no longer the befuddled hacker we were attached to, and having lost our guide within the Matrix, we’re in constant jeopardy of losing our way.