*Matrix Reloaded (R)
The Wachowski brothers lock down the style constraints of their three-part sci-fi cyber-epic fantasy with mesmerizing results that err on the side of video-game desensitization in part two. The Matrix Reloaded shoulders a visually drab color scheme that echoes Minority Report in its washed-out gray and green set pieces. The gauzy effect creates a visual drone that serves to distance audiences from the elliptical storyline as well as from the film's lovingly rendered, impotent violence. Nevertheless, this is one highly polished special-effects action movie that will keep audiences enthralled until the final installment of the franchise, The Matrix Revolutions, hits screens on Nov. 5.
Since the first film, Neo (Keanu Reeves) has switched from confused Matrix slave into a Superman-styled messianic protagonist with a lust-bound love for S&M warrior priestess Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in her signature patent leather cat suit. Neo has reconciled the "Why me?" aspect of his former nature, and now attempts to clarify his singular freedom of choice in one more meeting with the Oracle (played by the late Gloria Foster). The Oracle instructs Neo to rescue the Key Maker (Randall Duk Kim) from the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), a stylish French villain with a penchant for debauchery and blatant adultery beside his inhuman wife Persephone (Monica Bellucci), a vampire of emotions looking for her own taste of sensual delights.
The Oracle departs their meeting, abandoning Neo to fight off a multiplying number of humanoid Agent Smiths (Hugo Weaving) in a playground atmosphere reminiscent of West Side Story. Neo, dressed in a long unisex coat that billows into a dresslike hoop at the bottom, fights a legion of Reservoir Dogs-styled Agent Smiths that he's barely able to wound, much less incapacitate, as their numbers increase. This post-consultation combat casts doubt on the Oracle's integrity as that of yet another Matrix-programmed being from the compassionless machine world.
Spiritual and philosophical bellwether Captain Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) brings his ship (the Nebuchadnezzar) to dock inside the underground world of Zion, where our beloved crew gets a brief period of rest and relaxation within the last stronghold of humanity. Zion has recently been discovered by the machines and is under their menacing attack. Morpheus' rival and immediate superior Lock (Harry Lennix) makes a stab at exerting his higher authority, but is firmly upstaged by Morpheus' inspiring speech to the melting pot Zion populace, instructing them to move beyond their fear considering they have already survived a hundred years under machine totalitarianism.
The film's overriding emotional appeal lies in a premonition nightmare that Neo has at the beginning of the movie wherein Trinity is shot in the torso while falling backward in slow motion to her death. The relationship between Neo and Trinity is presented as a rarefied union in opposition to the veiled king and queen who control the Matrix. The potential of Neo and Trinity to command the world of humanity, or of the human spirit -- if that's all that remains outside the Matrix -- is a begging question that will presumably be addressed in the final chapter.
The philosophical and political riddles revolving around a Matrix theme of discovering God within resound with an Islamic sensibility that flies counter to the media-hyped collective consciousness that Americans supposedly share. But the cultural impact of The Matrix franchise may, over time, prove to be a lesson in the power of cinematically driven adult myth as propaganda for the masses.
Neo exhibits fresh powers at the end of Reloaded that promise to play a significant role in part three. What's at stake essentially in Matrix Reloaded is a symbolic capacity for original or individual thought. And the world of violent, super-action cinema is about to swing in a very aggressive direction. Fasten your seatbelts; it's going to be Matrix days at the movies for a very long time to come.