Keanu Reeves and the Wachowski brothers deliver a fresh helping of May tricks.

Neo Sparrin' 

Keanu Reeves and the Wachowski brothers deliver a fresh helping of May tricks.

Talk about tough acts to follow. The original 1999 The Matrix, a critical and commercial smash, came as a revelation almost out of nowhere -- if the combination of Joel Silver, Warner Bros., and roughly $60 million qualifies as nowhere. After more than four years, The Matrix Reloaded faces a level of expectation that probably can't be met. Writer-director brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski dodge many of the bullets associated with sequels, if not always with Neolike grace. The film is hugely entertaining but not as fresh as its predecessor.

Reloaded opens as the last transmission from a ship called the Osiris warns Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and the other "real world" captains that the machines are digging through the earth's crust toward Zion, the last remaining human city. (This bit of exposition refers to the animated short "The Final Flight of the Osiris," which will appear with eight other shorts on the upcoming Animatrix DVD.)

Morpheus' Nebuchadnezzar and the other ships are ordered home to defend Zion, setting off a series of internal political battles that constitute the slowest part of the film. There can be no direct connection to the Matrix from within Zion, but most of the interesting stuff happens in the Matrix. Luckily, the Wachowskis have contrived a reason for Morpheus and the gang to leave town, so the fun can begin again.

Once jacked in, Neo (Keanu Reeves) and company receive instructions from the Oracle (the late Gloria Foster, who provides likable human relief from the crew's often machinelike humans) that resemble a virtual-reality hacker's treasure hunt: Find this character/software module to get instructions to the next character/software module, who will have information that will help find this other crucial character or locale, which will allow the crew to protect Zion. Or something.

Some of these developments increase our knowledge of what the Matrix is and how it works and what the hell is really going on, but others feel like gratuitous plot embellishments, without the sense of necessity and inevitability that marked the original. Almost nothing in the first film could have been removed without damaging our eventual understanding; in Reloaded, lots of stuff provides excitement or is simply really cool but could be written out. The ephemeral, dreadlocked albino twins, for instance: yeah, spiffy ... but so what? (With the November release of The Matrix Revolutions, however, these cavils may turn out to be incorrect.)

Fight director Yuen Wo Ping provides dazzling choreography, but that, too, feels a bit compromised and familiar. Neo fighting one Mr. Smith is great, but Neo fighting a hundred Mr. Smiths isn't a hundred times better -- particularly when so much is accomplished through CGI and camera tricks. It's great that CGI now frees stuntmen from doing some really dangerous stuff. Injudiciously applied, however, it can rob an action sequence of power.

Aggravating this is the "rule" problem. Who has the power to do what? Why does Neo fight and fight the Smith army and almost lose several times when we know from the first punch that he could simply do his Superman act and fly away? If his powers are boundless, then there's no suspense and no point to the entire thing. If they are limited, how? The worst action moments involve Neo swooping from the sky to pull someone out of harm's way. Neo as deus ex machina may be a conscious joke on the Wachowskis' part, but it gets old.

And be warned that Matrix Reloaded really is only half of a two-part story. It ends with a cliffhanger and represents less than an independent whole. (If you sit through the closing credits, you'll see a preview of Revolutions.)

But for all of these problems, the Wachowskis still hold the current franchise on intellectually engaging action films. It's not like I won't be heading back for a second (or even third) look.

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