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The Matrix Reloaded

(2003) ** 1/2 R
138 min. Warner Brothers. Directors: Larry Wachowski, Andy Wachowski. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett-Smith.

In 1999's The Matrix, Laurence Fishburne's sage revolutionary Morpheus inducted Keanu Reeves's not-so-blissfully ignorant Neo into reality with this warning: "After this, there is no turning back." He might well have been describing the perplexing task of reloading a story which quite thoroughly exhausted its driving theme the first time around. Matrix fans will have my head on a platter for this, but it must be said: the encoded bloom is off the digital rose in The Matrix Reloaded.

What's left for the sequel, after the first film's clever deconstruction of postmodern reality, is modern youth culture's version of an endlessly looping Saturday-morning serial: the all-too-exhaustible video game (and this one's imprenetrable enough to demand a strategy guide). The Matrix Reloaded works best on this manic level, gleefully savaging a virtual world filled with the symbols of our daily oppression: high-rises, ghettos, and freeways.

No Neo-phyte should attempt watching The Matrix Reloaded (to be followed in six months by concluding chapter The Matrix Revolutions); even viewing the sequel only hours after re-watching the original, some of the more arcane fine points of the byzantine plot went soaring, like Reeves's suped-up hero, well over my head. The first film established a world a century into our future, in which humans enslaved by run-amok machines mistakenly accept the Matrix--their virtual, turn-of-the-milennium "existence"--as reality. A band of scrappy rebels lives to rescue those they can and forge a war for humanity. Morpheus, convinced that Neo is fabled savior "the One," focuses on the fulfillment of his new pledge's destiny, though minority opinion favors homeland security for Zion, the burrowed last refuge of humanity.

The Matrix Reloaded apparently rejoins our heroes roughly six months after the events of The Matrix, with Neo hot to trot for now-girlfriend Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and awaiting word from guiding light The Oracle (the late Gloria Foster) about how best to proceed raging against the machine. The Zion stronghold turns out to look a little like the one on the ice planet Hoth, from another trilogy's middle chapter (namely Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back), until a sadly inept sequence intercutting a resistance-movement rave with Neo jacking in to Trinity (so to speak). Council-meeting gobbledygook like "Comprehension is not a requisite for cooperation" may also remind genre fans of George Lucas's current Star Wars trilogy.

If The Matrix fetishized sunglasses, trenchcoats, and automatic weapons, The Matrix Reloaded fetishizes The Matrix; the love scene, for example, perversely draws attention to the painful spinal ports (or uber-piercings?) used to access the Matrix. Understandably upping the ante on their own indelible design, fraternal auteurs Andy and Larry Wachowski follow their adventure where it was fated to go, further into narrative doubt and closer to climactic war; they exponentially multiply Neo's nemesis (Hugo Weaving's now-free-Agent Smith) and return to the unforgettable effects style of head-spinning, slo-mo "bullet time" (pioneered by visual effects director John Gaeta and his team) and the kinetic fight choreography of Yuen Wo Ping.

The effects sequences certainly dazzle, with mayhem which may exhaust as many as it exhilarates. But even naysayers will be hard pressed to deny that The Matrix Reloaded features some of the most ornate and impressive action ever committed to film, including hundreds of Agent Smiths facing off against Neo and a bravura 14-minute freeway chase. Even more than the first film (and as reflected in companion pieces dubbed The Animatrix), The Matrix Reloaded virtuosically translates the Japanese-animation style to live-action, with only rare lapses into unintentional comedy (but, it must be said, frequent logical lapses, mostly deus versus machina resolutions to Neo's various, rather unthreatening challenges).

Aside from this numbing lack of stakes, the Wachowskis primarily fail by succumbing to their own self-seriousness. The franchises's increasingly chatty philosophical tracts, for the most part, play emptily against the science-fiction chic, and the deliberate speechifying about determinism (mostly slow, but in the existential, as-yet-unresolved climax, speedy) becomes more impenetrable than stimulating. When wily genre fave Anthony Zerbe, as a rebel councilor, natters on about man and machine, then pauses to ask, "Interesting, isn't it?", the Wachowskis are asking for trouble.

This less-focused sequel also allows dangerous amounts of time to reflect unfavorably on the portrayal of women in The Matrix. Moss's captivatingly intense Trinity--kick-ass though she may be--now seems more a male-fantasy symbol of love than a character, and Jada Pinkett-Smith appears mostly to be a war prize wedged between Morpheus and his rival in love and politics Commander Lock (Harry Lennix). Worse, an encounter with the oily Frenchman Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) allows for an unsavory metaphor amounting to a vagina monologue, complete with a penetrating special effect seemingly designed to make the boys snigger.

For all this, The Matrix Reloaded is must-see popcorn entertaiment for blockbuster enthusiasts, an epic undertaking of eye-popping sight and sound. As a film, it's a barely qualified disappointment; as a movie, it's a jerky but adrenalized ride. Serious cineastes always stay through the end-credits; The Matrix Reloaded rewards them with a reminder to keep this middle chapter in perspective.

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Aspect ratios: 2.4:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 9/7/2010

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner gives The Matrix Reloaded its single-disc Blu-ray debut, emerging from the previous The Ultimate Matrix Collection set. A/V quality is top-notch: the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix features awesome directionality and blistering power, and every pixel is in its place for a sharp picture that accurately recreates the filmmakers' intentions in color, contrast, detail and texture; most importantly, the image is wholly free of any distracting digital artifacts.

All of the film's unique bonus features carry over, beginning with the impressive In-Movie Experience, detailing with behind-the-scenes footage and cast and crew interviews how the film was made.

The film also comes with two optional audio tracks: philosophers commentary by Dr. Cornel West & Ken Wilder and critics commentary by Todd McCarthy, John Powers & David Thomson. We're playing with serious power here: tracks of this kind of erudition are all but unheard of on films made in the 21st century. In fact, these may be unique in that regard. Even those who don't like the feature will find these fascinating listens.

In the Behind the Story category, you'll find a Written Introduction by The Wachowski Brothers, as well as "Behind The Matrix" featurettes (46:57 with "Play All" option): "The Matrix Unfolds" (5:20), "Pre-Load" (22:10), "Get Me an Exit" (9:47) and "The MTV Movie Awards Reloaded" (9:38). "Car Chase" featurettes (86:07 with "Play All" option) include "The Freeway Chase" (30:49), "Oakland Streets and Freeway: Unseen Material" (10:06), "Tour of the Merovingian's Garage" (2:08), "Queen of the Road" (3:16), "Arteries of the Mega-City: The Visual Effects of the Freeway Chase" (11:52), "Foresight: Pre-planning the Mayhem" (6:29), "Freeway Truck Crash: Anatomy of a Shot" (5:32), "Fate of the Freeway" (1:26) and "Freeway Action Match" (14:25).

"Teahouse Fight" featurettes (7:04 with "Play All" option) include "Two Equals Clash" (4:04) and "Guardian of the Oracle: Collin Chow" (3:00), while "Unplugged" featurettes (40:26 with "Play all" option) comprise "Creating the Burly Brawl" (17:21), "A Conversation with Master Wo Ping" (10:00), "Chad Stahelski: The Other Neo" (2:22), "Burly Brawl Action Match" (6:07) and "Spiraling Virtual Shot: Anatomy of a Shot" (4:33).

"I'll Handle Them" featurettes (17:10 with "Play all" option) include "The Great Hall" (5:18), "Building the Merovingian’s Lair" (5:05), "Tiger Style: A Day in the Life of Chen Hu" (3:37) and "Heavy Metal: Weapons of the Great Hall" (3:08). "The Exiles" featurettes (17:53 with "Play All" option) include "The Exiles" (9:27) and "Big Brother is Watching: The Architects Office" (8:26).

Under Additional Footage, you'll find the "Enter the Matrix: The Game" featurette (28:15) and the ability to view the twenty-three live-action scenes shot for the video game (42:31 with "Play All" option). There's a "Music Video by P.O.D." (3:43), Trailers including "Reloaded/Revolutions Teaser" (1:18) and "The Matrix Reloaded Trailer" (2:25), and  TV Spots (4:31 with "Play All" option): "Yes" (0:32), "Jack In" (0:32), "Nice Trick" (0:17), "Story" (0:32), "No Escape" (0:32), "I'm In" (0:32), "Prophecy" (0:32) and "Neo" (1:01).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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