The Matrix Reloaded
On release, I found myself feeling curiously out of synch with underwhelmed audiences’ prevailing response to The Matrix Reloaded; I loved it, for the most part. Indeed, there was but one scene I felt failed spectacularly, and yet it mystifyingly seemed to come in for the most praise: the Burley Brawl, assisted by some of the ropiest CGI in a major motion picture up to that point. So it wasn’t the ponderous exposition – the Architect’s discourse, memorably mocked by Will Ferrell in an MTV awards sketch – or especially the sweaty sexy Zion rave that got my goat. No, it was that the Wachowskis failed to meet the high standards of seamless world building evidenced in the first instalment.
Of course, one can argue duff effects are excusable if the plot is there, but I don’t think that’s really true, if you’re building your movie around action set pieces. It’s like rating a Bond movie highly despite the stunts being crap: feasible, but unlikely. Perhaps the siblings allowed their reach to extend beyond their grasp, or perhaps release deadlines intervened. Either way, the virtual Neos and Smiths of the Burley Brawl look like a bad video game.
We’re treated to similar intermittently elsewhere – a flying, virtual Neo; the bonnet-busting virtual Agents in the freeway chase, particularly disappointing there, since so much of that sequence is impressive in assembling an extended altercation on the move – such that it’s the less cutting-edge sequences that are the real showcases. Instead, Neo’s stairway fight with the Merovingian’s lieutenants is the true standout, moving on from the first movie visually in exactly the kind of incremental way you’d hoped for.
It takes a while to get there, mind. The first forty minutes – which include the Burley Brawl, as a sop to those wanting cool action – are a real slog, an exercise in Zion banality, introducing characters who’ll have no bearing until the final part (Clayton Watson’s Kid), and even then, you wish they didn’t. Hardly any of these new faces come with a remotely engaging aspect.
Anthony Zerbe only stands out because he usually plays rotters. Harry Lennix is foisted the most ridiculously antagonistic character (to Morpheus), acting like a seething twat purely for the sake of it (and if that’s secretly because Jada Pinkett Smith’s Niobe once had a thing with Morpheus, well, there’s absolutely no hint of a reason she’d want to be with Lock anyway). Harold Perrineau only makes an impression as Link because we expect him to shout “Walt!” at any moment (so he made zero impression at the time), while Nona Gaye only makes an impression as his missus Zee because she’s so pulchritudinous. It’s as if, after The Matrix regurgitated A New Hope, the Wachowskis were taking their character cues from The Phantom Menace, rather than The Empire Strikes Back.
And then there’s Bane (Ian Bliss), another setup in search of anything interesting plot-wise. He’s introduced then abandoned until the final five minutes (because his sole function is to blind Neo in Revolutions), further evidence of brazenly slipshod structuring on the Wachowskis’ part.
And of the returning Agent Smith, much as I enjoy Hugo Weaving’s performance, I rather wish he’d been cast aside after the first one, and they’d come up with something new. Reloaded brandishes “magic” explanations for his longevity (“I wouldn’t go”), as it does for Bane’s real-world takeover (I had hoped it was a sign of a Matrix within a Matrix, in concordance with Neo having the power to drop a squid, which would have been an appealingly recursive head scramble. But, alas, it was not to be; not since Back to the Future Part III has a trilogy capper so failed to deliver on the potential of its second instalment). Smith’s black-goo method of assimilation is visually arresting – of course, The X-Files went their first with Tunguska, except one is AI and the other alien – but Smith in Reloaded is no longer a figure of fear, even when there are hundreds or thousands of him populating the Matrix. He’s now familiar, and somewhat toothless.
On the other hand, I rather like the corruption of the straightforward Chosen One outline of the original, with Neo discovering his destiny isn’t as black and white as it first seemed (and is possibly even a blind alley, if you follow the Architect’s account – the prophecy was a lie, it was all another system of control). The discussions of determinism is engrossing, if you have the patience. And if Reloaded is essentially an extended chase/quest (in pursuit of Randall Duk Kim’s Keymaker), that needn’t be seen as a demerit point; many of the best movies boil down to chases. And there are nice incidental touches too, like the accounts of earlier versions of the Matrix giving rise to vampires and werewolves (and explaining the Twins).
Indeed, the conceptual highlight of Reloaded is anything involving Lambert Wilson as the Merovingian (even if Monica Bellucci is underused as his consort Persephone, albeit not as underused as she was in Spectre). It’s a shame he’s a supporting villain, as he has a delicious old time with the material, bestowing an erotic dessert on a dinner guest (“Causality. There’s no escaping from it”) and showing Neo and his pals a winning irreverence and complete lack of respect.
Many of the criticisms aren’t off base, however; it does feel bloated and ungainly, despite being only two minutes longer than the original, and structurally, it’s all over the place. And with hindsight, the spine of the picture – Neo’s quest to save Trinity, introduced in the first scene – is rendered inert by the bum move of bringing her back to life only then to kill her again an hour later. But patchy as the picture can be, it’s to be commended for having no interest in simply repeating the first picture’s hero arc. No, the real problem is what followed The Matrix Reloaded.