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Neo Sparrin'

Keanu Reeves and the Wachowski brothers deliver a fresh helping of May tricks

Talk about tough acts to follow: The original Matrix, a critical and commercial smash, came almost as a revelation out of nowhere -- if the combination of Joel Silver, Warner Brothers and roughly 60 million bucks qualifies as "nowhere." After more than four years, The Matrix Reloaded -- the first of two sequels or, more accurately, the first half of a two-part sequel -- faces a level of expectation that probably can't be met. Creating a satisfying sequel under any circumstances is rife with potential problems. Suffice it to say that writer/director brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski dodge many of these bullets, if not with quite so much grace as Neo. The film is hugely entertaining but, by necessity, not as fresh as its predecessor.

Matrix Reloaded starts some undefined time after the end of the first movie. The last transmission from a ship called the Osiris warns Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and the other "real world" captains that the machines are digging through the earth's crust straight down toward Zion, the last remaining human city. This bit of info refers back to the animated short "The Final Flight of the Osiris," which accompanied Dreamcatcher in theaters and will appear with eight other shorts on the upcoming Animatrix DVD. The Matrix Reloaded has a few other references to these films but nothing that makes them prerequisite to understanding the story.

Morpheus' Nebuchadnezzar and the other ships are ordered home to Zion to defend the city, setting off a series of internal political battles of strategy that constitute the slowest part of the film. The problem is that there can be no direct connection to the Matrix from within Zion, and, as in the first film, almost all the interesting stuff happens in the Matrix. Luckily the Wachowskis have contrived a reason for Morpheus and the gang to leave town, so the fun can begin again.

Once jacked in, Neo (Keanu Reeves) and crew receive instructions from the Oracle (the late Gloria Foster, who provides a likable human relief from the crew's often machinelike human beings) that resemble a virtual-reality computer-hackers' treasure hunt: Find this character/software module so you can get instructions to the next character/software module, who will have information that will help you find this other crucial character or locale, which will tell you how to protect Zion -- or something. It's all very "Bring me the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West," with the fate of the world at stake.

Some of these developments increase our knowledge of what the Matrix is and how it works and what the hell is really going on, but others feel like gratuitous plot embellishments, without the sense of necessity and inevitability that marked everything in the original. There was almost nothing in the first film that could be removed without damaging our eventual understanding; in Reloaded, lots of stuff provides excitement or is simply, in and of itself, really cool but could be written out. The ephemeral dreadlocked albino twins, for instance: Yeah, spiffy ... but so what?

With the November release of part three, The Matrix Revolutions, however, these cavils may turn out to be incorrect. Maybe there is a more crucial metaphysical payoff to the twins and other new characters, such as the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), a snotty French avatar, and his frustrated wife (an ill- and underused Monica Bellucci). But, so far, some of this stuff is reminiscent of Back to the Future 3, a perfectly OK film that nonetheless felt like an unnecessary tag-on. Might that series have been better with only parts one and two?

Fight director Yuen Wo Ping provides his usual dazzling choreography, but that, too, feels both a bit compromised and a bit "been there, done that." If Neo fighting one Mr. Smith is great, that doesn't mean Neo fighting 100 Mr. Smiths is 100 times as great -- particularly when so much is accomplished through CGI and camera tricks. Many of the fights here are so fast and furious and protracted that they become meaningless.

It's a great thing that CGI frees stuntmen from doing some really dangerous stuff now. But, injudiciously applied, it can rob an action sequence of all power. The best action scenes, even in sci-fi and horror flicks, are somehow rooted in reality.

Many Hong Kong movie fans disdained the use of wires and harnesses as unauthentic or even cheating. But even those tricks are not as far from reality as supernaturally speeded-up CGI simulations. The further we get from reality, the less thrilling the effect. There simply is very little genuine suspense in these scenes; the excitement is more the result of a physiological reaction to fast cutting, camera movement and sound effects than it is of empathetic investment in the characters. Would we be that much less excited during the big freeway chase if it was Mr. Smith (or whomever) teetering over the edge instead of Morpheus?

Aggravating this is the more general "rule" problem: Who has the power to do what? And why? Why does Neo fight and fight the Smith army and almost lose several times when we know that, from the first punch, he could have simply done his Superman act and flown away? Why can he beat them? "Because he's the One and can do anything" isn't a good enough answer. If his powers are unbounded, then there's no suspense and no point to the entire thing. If they are bounded, we need to know how. The film's best action moments involve a motorcycle dodging in between speeding cars, because these at least look real. The worst action moments involve Neo swooping down from the sky to pull someone out of harm's way. That Neo could be considered a deus ex machina may be a conscious joke on the Wachowskis' part, but it grows old.

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