This might bother some of you but I just want to say it up front: put me in the camp of people who say the original MATRIX really is “the shit” as the kids say when they mean that it is not shit but actually the opposite of shit, which is I guess in this case THE MATRIX. Because what these boys the Wachowski Brothers did was an extremely well executed twilight zone concept for the post William Gibson days which also happened to be the perfect vehicle to combine over the top Hong Kong martial arts traditions with american actors and computer effects AND an appropriate metaphor for our times.
I love the idea that somebody like Jackie Chan or Michael Jordan who has extraordinary physical skills could actually just be a smart dude who figured out loopholes in the laws of reality. If you can understand the program well enough you can cheat and do things that a person isn’t supposed to be able to do. In the old shaw brothers movies it was just magic or shaolin wisdom but here we put those same spectacular moves in a sci-fi context and we get a whole different spin where even some jackass like Keanu Reeves can fly through the air and be so convincing that most of American can watch him as the iconic badass Neo and not even think of him as Keanu anymore.
It would be hard to exaggerate the influence THE MATRIX has had on movies in the past couple years, unless you said that all movies made after 1999 were word for word re-creations of THE MATRIX. It has been a big influence, not just on the clothes they wear and the wires they swing around on, but even the very concept of how much stuntwork an actor can be expected to do. If Keanu Reeves can do kung fu training for months and do most of his own fighting then what the fuck is Steven Seagal’s excuse? Maybe that’s why he went back to straight to video. Because the Wachowskis convinced their cast to do it and they were crazy enough to be convinced, now Charlies Angels can do it and Kill Bill can do it. Because it’s been proven possible. And people know who Yuen Wo Ping is enough to hire his brother to do Charlie’s Angels. And then of course there’s all the people copying the “bullet time” freeze framing effect which had been done before but was popularized and made easier and more flexible by the technology invented for THE MATRIX. I know that’s just a gimmick but in couple decades that will be known as one of the cliches of this era of film just like wah wah guitars are for ’70s film. It’s like what was the first movie to do a freeze frame or a split screen? It’s trivial but it’s a big effect.
Most people wouldn’t deny the kung fu stuff was cool, but what gets controversial is when you start talking about whether the movie is deep or not. Look man, nobody’s trying to tell you to throw away your philosophy books and replace them with a Matrix dvd. What they’re saying is that it’s a completely effective kung fu/sci-fi movie that also has some substance under the surface if you’re into that type of crap. The symbolism of the matrix itself is pretty obvious although seldom explored in any of the ten billion articles I’ve seen about the movie. The dude in Entertainment Weekly thought it was supposed to be about the optimism of upstart computer companies in the late ’90s and so is no longer relevant. What? Morpheus says from the beginning that you see the matrix every time you go to work or to church or turn on the tv. The matrix is the system, the matrix is the man, the matrix is the fairy tale they want you to believe. Those bleak office cubicles and threatening authority figures in ties are still out in force. I think right now the matrix is the world many Americans live in where Bush was elected and has always been very popular and America is loved and admired all around the world except by people who are jealous of our freedom, and the Iraqis are happy that we knocked down their statue leaving freedom and democracy in its place, and the troops are home safe and there is no such thing as Gulf War syndrome and al Quaeda is on the run and there are no questions left to be answered about 9-11 and Fox news is fair and balanced and there is no greater honor or higher achievement than winning on American Idol. Unfortunately unplugging these people and showing them the real world is going to be just as hard as in the movie.
It’s a damn good metaphor and that’s why even the rapper Chuck D from the group Public Enemy loves the Matrix. He uses the matrix metaphor in his lyrics and I only mention that because I haven’t heard Gil Scott Heron use it yet but if he did I would be quoting him.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never worn a trenchcoat in my life but let’s face it people I love the god damn MATRIX.
So that brings me to THE MATRIX RELOADED which I come to with high expectations but I still loved the fucking thing. It doesn’t have the sneak attack advantage of coming out of nowhere and it has the usual disadvantages of being a sequel. They have to try to recreate what people loved about the first one without rehashing it, and bring the story in new directions without leaving too many people behind. They have to introduce interesting new characters without stealing screen time from the old favorites. They also decided to add new lofty concepts on top of the old ones and by definition the whole thing gets a little unwieldy but I am happy to say that it is still standing at the end. They also up the ante on the action so high that the idea of people finding it underwhelming (which is how my personal buddy Harry Knowles described it) is absurd to me.
I mean look, in the real life matrix that is the entertainment media, people aren’t always rewarded for their courage and innovation, in fact it’s usually the opposite.
EXHIBIT A: Eddie Murphy just did a fucking MR. MOM movie called DADDY DAY CARE and his career is officially “back on track.” By all accounts it’s the exact same edge free, low laugh, nothing new, worthless unwatchable putrid garbage that ruined his career, but it happened to sell enough tickets on the first day so hooray he’s our hero now, welcome back Eddie we missed you.
EXHIBIT B: reality tv, reality tv movies, game show tv, star search tv, etc.
It’s not like the Wachowski brothers had to try. They could’ve whipped out a generic rehash sequel in a year and a half, or they could’ve taken time off to direct an adaptation of an old tv show or comic book character. Instead they’ve spent what, 4 years doing a 5 hour epic that they’ve convinced the studio to release in 2 parts against all conventional wisdom?
You really don’t HAVE to go to those lengths to get what the studios want out of audiences these days. You can have Eddie Murphy babysit a bunch of kids. You can have a rapping kangaroo. You can have Cuba Gooding Jr. go sledding with some dogs. There are many movies about meteors and flying saucers and giant iguanas and mummies that make millions of dollars for their studios without bothering with any innovation or cleverness or entertainment value. Nope, just blow some shit up and throw in Mathew Broderick or somebody equally recognizable. That counts. Technically, it is a big expensive movie. I saw ads for it and everything. Here is my money thank you for doing business with me I will never think about you again.
Instead of just putting those characters on the screen giving us more of the same they seem to have sat down and made a list of the most ridiculous, unfilmable action ideas they could come up with, then figure out how to do them.
I mean can you imagine Roland Emmerich or somebody going into Warner Brothers and saying, “Look, this will cost a whole hell of a lot of money, and the technology hasn’t been invented yet, and we’re gonna need to build a 2 mile loop of freeway to film on, and also we’re gonna film one 5 hour movie and split it into 2 parts that you can release in the same year, but…”
I mean you’ve seen the thing. (And if not you better stop reading smartass, this review is not for you.) It opens with a slow motion shootout between two people free falling from an office building! There’s a scene where Larry Fishburne stands in the middle of freeway traffic and attacks an SUV with a sword! There’s a kung fu/sword fight ON TOP OF A SEMI speeding down the freeway. And of course there’s an extremely well thought-out fight between Neo and hundreds of Agent Smiths. And those are just the more show-offy scenes. (When you think of the effects you think of the fighting and Neo’s Superman flying. You kind of forget that they also created this whole underground city and post-apocalyptic wasteland and battling hovercraft and robotic squids.)
These are the types of things you’ve always wanted to see but never thought a movie would be bold enough to do. The fight between Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weavings is really great because it throws out that martial arts convention where all the ninjas stand around in a circle and come at their foe one-at-a-time. No, Hugo Weavings attack all at once and even pigpile on Neo. He has to figure out ways to take them out a bunch at a time – swinging a metal pole, swinging a Hugo Weaving, etc. There is also this whole progression where first Neo tests them to find out how much of a threat they are. Hugo Weavings are cocky at first but then they start losing, and they keep bringing in more and more reinforcements. Neo keeps going for it but eventually he realizes that this particular battle is unwinnable and flies away Superman style. The non-flying Hugo Weavings kind of scratch their heads so to speak and walk away because they may be Hugo Weavings but they sure can’t fly.
I guess because of the lack of imagination some people have today that I should probaly mention that the mindboggling, unprecedented special effects work in this scene is not 100% flawlessly photorealistic. This may be shocking and horrifying to the mind of the internet nerd, but there are definitely shots where the Hugo Weavings look phoney like the characters in the video games that these same horrified nerds will go home and play afterwards.
Hey man, I wish the scene was absolutely perfect, but instead it is merely absolutely incredible with a couple shots you have to forgive. Oh well, live with it assholes. That’s what happens in movies, they have to fake stuff. That’s what movies are, in my opinion: fake.
Anyway, about the flying. Remember Neo flew in the very last shot of THE MATRIX and now we get to see what he does with that skill. It’s great to hear somebody tell him “they’re 500 miles north” as if it’s hopeless, and Neo just says, “Okay” and starts flying. The best touch is that he does a little tai chi move before he takes off that is so powerful it causes ripples in the ground. As he flies around gusts of wind blast debris to the side. He looks so damn cool, you can just picture whoever’s making the new Superman picture sitting there watching it thinking, “Shit.”
Also did I mention there is a kung fu fight on top of a moving semi? All this choreographed by Mr. Yuen Wo Ping?
But don’t let me make this out like it’s ONLY a big knock your socks off your feet and into your pocket asskicking spectacle. Although it is definitely that. It also gives us more about the world of the Matrix and begins a story of the final battle between man and machine. The Wachowskis are not afraid to challenge the audience and honestly it’s a fuckin workout trying to follow everything these characters are talking about. Especially during the scene with The Architect where I don’t think you’re even supposed to understand what they’re talking about exactly until maybe after we see part 3.
And remember, the kung fu and camera rotating wasn’t the only thing people liked about THE MATRIX, it was also the twilight zone reality bending concepts. The Wachowskis aren’t letting up, they are willing to tell their audience wait a minute assholes… not so fast. Maybe all that shit you THOUGHT you understood from the first one was actually not true… what if there was more to the story that we didn’t know yet? Pulling the carpet out from under you again and then kicking you in the ass and running off. Which is the job of all sequels.
I don’t know if that asskicking and running off part is why, but I saw this movie and I really liked it and I think the rest of the audience did too, but afterwards I discovered that some of our friends who consider themselves the movie nerds of the internet… well, they just hated it. Reading the talkbacks by the newsies on The Ain’t It Cool News, I noticed that they have all their own terminology for the different scenes. There’s some scene they call “the burly brawl” which comes I guess from what the producers of the movie nicknamed it while filming. That’s a pretty good indication of the weird place movie fandom has come to where the day the movie is released you are expected to know the insider nickname for a particular scene and you can still believe you went in with a fresh perspective.
But there’s also a scene they all complain about called “the rave” which apparently is some computer nerd slang for “the part where all the people in Zion dance.” I had completely forgotten about this scene already when I found out it was a point of contention and I was utterly confused why such a minor and inoffensive scene would be the one they keep complaining about. Until I made the connection… oh that’s right, these are nerds we’re talking about. Now I don’t want to insult your nerd culture, I understand that the wallflower ethos goes back to the days of the First Poindexter but come on you fuckin pansies, you can’t hate a movie just based on the fact that YOU ARE AFRAID TO DANCE IN PUBLIC. This is a movie about a war between machines and humans and one of the things that makes machines different from humans is THEY’RE NOT INTO DANCING. I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable to see people dancing and enjoying themselves for 1 or 2 minutes, but whose side are you on, anyway? Are you man or machine? I haven’t seen part 3 yet but do you think Agent Smith will have a dance number at the end? No. The “rave” is a good scene, you fuckers. End of story.
Anyway it’s this section of the movie that shows you what’s left of humanity and what they’re fighting for and also questions their fight. I like the conversation between Neo and some guy who points out the irony of the rebels’ reliance on machines in their fight against machines for relying on humans. And I especially like Morpheus’s speech to the gathered masses of Zion. He usually talks slow, quiet and deliberate, very similar to the agents themselves. But here Laurence Fishburne gets to use his Shakespearean side to project his voice through a huge cave like he really wants everybody to hear it. The guy is ferocious. You can see why he is a respected leader (although, you find out, maybe not as respected as he seemed in the first one).
(By the way, Laurence Fishburne who plays Morpheus was in OTHELLO, Harold Perrineau who plays Link was in ROMEO + JULIET, Harry Lennix who plays Commander whatsisname was in TITUS and Keanu Reeves who plays Neo was in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Shit, even Aliyaah who was supposed to play Zee and Jet Li who turned down the role of Seriph were in ROMEO MUST DIE. I think the wachowski brothers just watched a bunch of Shakespeare movies to do their casting.)
Alot of what makes it so great is in the attention to detail. I like how even though Neo is the One, Morpheus is still the commander so he always walks in front flanked by Trinity and Neo like they’re his bodyguards. Whenever they’re in the Matrix they stand there with their sunglasses, faces completely blank like the agents. It’s very comic booky and it’s also funny because the machines always talk about their expressions. “You look surprised to see me.” “It is interesting to watch your reactions.” Just like a fucking machine to not recognize the lack of emotion on Neo’s face.
Also Cornel West has a cameo!
And maybe what makes it work best as a sequel – at least at this point – is that it’s SUCH a cliffhanger. I was thinking the cliffhanger would be whether or not Neo saves Trinity. Instead he already saved her but now he has taken the path that according to The Architect will lead to the destruction of Zion and “a cataclysmic system crash” that will kill everyone connected to the matrix. So how’s he gonna unpaint himself from THAT corner? (We should note that the Architect also predicted that he would not save Trinity, that there was nothing he could do, AND that Neo would never see the Architect again. So I think we can assume that that smarmy computerized bastard will be getting a serious ass kicking after or before or during the saving of the world.)
And maybe people don’t like this kind of thing these days but I think I will enjoy 6 months of going through all the unsanswered questions and trying to figure out what will happen. Was the Architect really telling the truth? Have they really destroyed Zion and recreated it 5 times (I wouldn’t be surprised. It would be just like a fuckin machine to treat genocide as a computer program – build Zion, destroy Zion, go to 10). Also, is The Oracle on our side or not? Is she really the Mother of the Matrix that the Architect referred to as Neo suspected? I don’t think so but then who is? Is it somebody we never saw before, or is it Persephone or – shit – Trinity? If the Oracle isn’t on our side does that mean Neo will have to fight Seriph again? Why did Persephone mention silver bullets and will the brother that she didn’t kill be back again? Will we see the twins again? Are the agents in on the Architect’s plan or could they be unwittingly fighting against it? Is Hugo Weaving’s new power part of the plan or is he another anomaly? And how the fuck can a computer program come into a person’s real body or, for that matter, how can Neo have power over machines in the real world? Or is it really that what we thought was the real world is actually another level of the matrix?
And most of all, how many of those badass “mech” robot suits we saw a glimpse of will be used in the final battle? I hope they do kung fu in a robot suit! That’ll win over Harry Knowles.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.