I caught an opening-weekend show of X2, and the audience shivered with genuine excitement just once — during the trailer for The Matrix Reloaded. And why not? When The Matrix came out four years ago, it made most of Hollywood feel suddenly antiquated. The movie was an exuberantly mulched blend of cyberpunk, kung fu movies, video games, comic books, hip-hop, Philip K. Dick, groovy trench coats and operatic Hong Kong violence — Sam Peckinpah by way of John Woo. Just like George Lucas before them, filmmakers Andy and Larry Wachowski stitched the whole thing together with the kind of hokey philosophizing about illusion, reality and chosen young men that makes 14-year-olds slap their heads and go “Wow!” Actually, I went “Wow,” too. Not at the Wachowskis’ jejune metaphysical ruminations but at their success in creating a new cinematic landscape and cyberspace Shaolin warrior. Keanu Reeves’ Neo wasn’t simply the one thousand and first face of Joseph Campbell’s ever-changing mythic hero, he hit the millennial Zeitgeist with the explosive accuracy of a smart bomb.

Of course, once you create such an epoch-making world, the question becomes what to do with it. If you’re God, you rest; if you’re a filmmaker, you make a sequel. But how? Do you create a follow-up as boldly inventive as the original or do you play it safe and just make the franchise bigger? In Hollywood, just to ask this question is to answer it.

The Matrix Reloaded begins as the machines that run Earth are 72 hours from destroying the city of Zion, last freehold of human beings. The only hope is the old band of rebels: the enchanted Neo, his tough-chick lover, Trinity (hard-faced Carrie-Anne Moss), and the prophecy-spouting Morpheus, played by burgeoning Laurence Fishburne, who’s evidently been eating rather well off his profits from the first picture. To save humanity, Neo and Co. jack into the unreal world of The Matrix in search of a literal key to survival. There, they encounter assorted symbolically named helpers (including The Oracle from the last film), square off with a Frenchified villain known as The Merovingian (played with curdled glee by Lambert Wilson) and battle the machine regime’s murderous enforcers led by wisecracking Agent Smith (once again, Australian actor Hugo Weaving), who has developed the power to duplicate himself infinitely. Through all this, Neo must battle his recurring dream that Trinity will die — her all-too-human blood spilling out from her black fetishistic body suit — and ponder deep-dish questions: What is the relationship between causality and choice? Is it possible that even rebellion is pre-programmed?

Although Reloaded was originally conceived as part two of a trilogy, it feels like a jerry-built sequel. The opening hour is a torpid mess, all clichés and plodding, franchise-enhancing mythology, made worse by the cheesy conception of Zion, whose citizens’ battle for freedom is the purest TV corn: Each time Neo walks round a corner, you half expect him to bump into Captain Kirk. This might matter less if we cared about the human dimension of the story — Neo’s growth as a hacker messiah, his desperate love for Trinity or the poignancy underlying Morpheus’ visionary swagger. But the Wachowskis aren’t exactly fabled for their emotional depth (their debut thriller, Bound, had all the warmth of a video-poker machine), and here the whole notion of human freedom is largely reduced to an unintentionally comical scene in which the inhabitants of Zion stage what looks like a sweaty, multiracial rave party on the subterranean set of Little Nicky. An orgy of bumping and grinding, this White Negro fantasy is so far over the top that I kept expecting Gary Oldman to turn up in his True Romance dreadlocks.

Now, some of this is simply the problem of middles that also afflicted The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and the new X-Men picture (which, too, is heading toward a grand finale). The second part of a trilogy is tricky because it offers neither the pleasures of introducing a new world nor the satisfactions of bringing the story to a climax. Caught in narrative limbo, the Wachowskis — like Peter Jackson and Bryan Singer before them — lose sight of the story’s essential drama and take the easy way out. They swamp part two with action, hoping sheer momentum can hide the rickety storytelling.

To be fair, Reloaded has enough dazzling pyrotechnics to let audiences pretend they aren’t leaving the theater disappointed. A clever, if overlong, schoolyard fight between Neo and Agent Smith grows ever wilder as more and more identical Smiths arrive to attack him until the whole thing looks like the world’s craziest rugby scrum. And the Wachowskis top that with an unbelievably protracted chase-fight scene — all crashing cars, vrooming trucks and motorcycles racing against freeway traffic — that culminates with Morpheus atop a racing truck fighting killer machines with his samurai sword. While much of this is nifty — two trucks collide with a fabulous accordion crunch — it’s also unexpectedly unexciting. With its flying kicks, kangaroo leaps and spectacular backflips, the original Matrix married Hong Kong stunts to Hollywood effects and made us feel we were experiencing something unique. But what was fresh in 1999 now feels tired, mechanical — there’s too much slo-mo, generic CGI. Indeed, Reloaded’s set pieces have neither the lightness and wit of the first film’s nor the grace of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where each skirmish was charged with emotion. Here, the action scenes have the dulling redundancy of a video game that somebody else is playing. The sequences go on getting bigger — there are probably 25 backflips here for every one in The Matrix — but they’re almost wholly devoid of suspense. The Wachowskis seem to think that, if it’s exciting when Morpheus nearly falls off that moving truck, it’ll be even more exciting if it happens six times.

Ironically, much of what’s best about Reloaded can be found in small, human touches — notably, Gloria Foster’s sly performance as The Oracle and Randall Duk Kim’s wonderfully deft turn as The Keymaker. At their best, the Wachowskis have a gift for clever pop throwaways — there’s an amusingly conceived cameo by left-wing prof Cornel West — and for mischief: They use Neo’s ability to fly in a scene that almost seems designed to render the upcoming Superman movie wholly redundant. Reload that, Brett Ratner.

Like the original Stars Wars films, the Matrix trilogy offers the fantasy of a small, select group rebelling against overwhelming odds (next up, The Matrix Revolutions). But what are Neo and his comrades rebelling against? Although the official enemy here is the machine world, the artificial reality they’ve constructed looks suspiciously like the corporate global order as we now know it. Of course, it’s hard to believe the Wachowskis mean this when they and Warner Bros. are busy selling off sponsorships to brands like POWERade. The filmmakers are slightly more sincere in their racial politics. The most sinister figures are all white men in suits, while aside from Trinity — a weathered butch woman with a mean leg kick — the heroes are all black, Asian or racially mixed. (Mr. O’Reilly, Ms. Coulter, start your engines.) Reloaded doesn’t have anything truly meaningful to say about race, but its proud swirl of colors underscores a huge cultural shift. These days the mass international audience — including white American teenagers — think nonwhite style is what’s happening. And the true meaning of movies like this one finally lies in how it teaches us new ways to be cool.

This is great news for Keanu Reeves, whose extraordinary handsomeness, at once Asian and Caucasian, masculine and feminine, makes Neo his ideal role. Although his acting inclines toward the wooden, it’s always been his weird genius (if that’s the term) to exude a charmed aura, an uncanny sense of being the chosen one — remember, he’s been the Buddha. I’m not sure any other actor could play Neo nearly so well, for the others would all be working to seem like The One (as he’s known), while Reeves conveys that quality just by showing up. And he looks fabulous doing it. As he moves across the screen in those angled sunglasses and the long black robe of a kung fu priest — tightly cut at the top and skirtlike at the bottom for maximum panache when kicking — you can almost believe that The Matrix Reloaded is as cool as you thought it was going to be.


THE MATRIX RELOADED | Written and directed by ANDY and LARRY WACHOWSKI | Produced by JOEL SILVER | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide

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