It's been a full four years since The Matrix was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. Four years since critics were divided -- arguing that the film was either brilliant or a ridiculous hodgepodge of borrowed philosophical ideas and groundbreaking visual effects that wore out their welcome. Four years since moviegoers latched on to and made a mega-hit of the story of an alternate reality and the human race's desperate fight for survival against a race of machines.
Sure, not a lot of sense could be made of the intricate plotting, or the worlds between which Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) regularly traversed, either virtually or physically. But that first installment in what will, before this year's end, be a finished trilogy, was much more about its stunning look than anything in the plot.
So here we have the same characters, still fighting the good fight of human versus machine, but with the stakes much higher. At the beginning of the sequel -- and don't even think about trying to follow anything in this one without having seen the first -- it's made clear that the evil machines are closing in on the world known as Zion with one intent: elimination of anything that isn't a machine. The job of our hero, Neo? To vanquish the evil, to save the world, to carry on a loving relationship with Trinity.
Oh yes, this time there's plenty of character development, not to mention plenty of time given to exploring the characters' various relationships. Neo and Trinity are a hot item, and the film features one heavy-duty erotic sequence with them, along with some pretty good kissing scenes. But there's also a look at newest crew member Link (Harold Perrineau) and his girlfriend Zee (Nona Gaye) and how war affects their once happy homestead, as well as a hint of a triangle and resulting friction between Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), her superior officer Commander Lock (Harry Lennix) and Morpheus.
Lest anyone think that this Matrix has become bogged down with something as drab and unexciting as love stories, worry not. This is still very much special effects city. The sets are vast constructs, featuring production design that ranges from dank caverns filled with a teeming populace to advanced techno-flavored rooms crammed with (good) machines. The first flying sequence happens about 10 seconds into the film, followed by the first fight about 10 seconds later. At least 20 more seconds goes by before guns are blazing and glass is shattering, but this is just a hint of what's to come. In fact, there's a lot more flying this time, since it appears that Neo has managed to gain some control over the powers he didn't know he had. It's nothing for him to suddenly shoot up into the air and zoom across town doing, as one of his cohorts says, "the Superman thing."
But most of the action comes from various confrontations with the Men in Black-like agent named Smith (Hugo Weaving, in both sinister and comic mode) who seems to be waiting around every corner -- wait, make that minions of look-alike agents named Smith -- and what they're waiting for is a chance to fight any good guy, whether it be with Neo or Trinity or Morpheus.
Those fights are plentiful and are ramped up in style and substance from the first film. The initial, lengthy combat between Neo and an army of Smiths is simply and utterly astounding. That one, and all of the follow-ups, become a series of graceful ballets, complete with kicks, chops, blades and a surprising amount of chuckles.
But the early fights are nothing compared to what happens when the word "freeway" is mentioned. The line comes from Trinity, who says to Morpheus, "You always told me to stay off the freeway. You told me it was suicide." That's a signal for the film to shift into high-gear, and to present a sweat-inducing, dizzying, extended car-motorcycle-truck sequence that's a marvel of stunt driving, visual effects and editing, all accompanied by a terrific, pounding score.
The Wachowski brothers, who again wrote and directed, slow things down from time to time in order to introduce people known as the Architect, the Oracle and the Key Maker, who offer some explanations of what's going on here. But despite the quality of the acting -- it's fine for the complex science fiction setting; it's excellent and oddly funny coming from a new French character named Merovingian, played over the top by Lambert Wilson -- what's going on isn't really all that important. What's important is that the film provides one hell of a ride, a ride that's so wild and so much fun, it just doesn't matter whether everything makes sense.
For those with calendar books out, the third installment, The Matrix Revolutions, is set for a Nov. 5 release.