A lot has changed since "The Matrix" bowed in 1999. Its high-leaping, time-suspending fight scenes have been copied innumerable times, and the entire culture of cyberpromise that birthed the project has been thrown into stark relief by the dot-com bust. As for the legion of acolytes who took the movie's hand-me-down existentialism as a personal manifesto Ã? well, many of them have managed to advance to their second year of community college. And even they come to the Wachowski Brothers' massively hyped follow-up expecting more.
"More," as this vaguely dispiriting sequel defines the term, means "longer," "pricier" and "more accomplished," but rarely does it equal "better." From its flat storyline on up, the film has "transition piece" written all over it, existing mostly to take us from Episode I to Episode III while occasional state-of-the-art action sequences distract us from how pat it all feels.
A few months after the end of the first film, hacker messiah Neo (Keanu Reeves) is feeling his oats, his control of the mass delusion known as the Matrix now extending to superhuman abilities like flight. Along with his mentor, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and leather clad squeeze, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Neo is on a mission to protect the real-world outpost of Zion from the mechanical sentinels that were hurtling to destroy it when last we looked. But Morpheus' devotion to the teachings of prophecy keeps distancing him from his more pragmatic superiors. As a result, our heroes are soon off on a side mission to shut down the Matrix, a quest that depends on a rendezvous with a mysterious figure called the Keymaker. (The near-"Ghostbusters" moniker might be an incredibly sly homage, but I doubt it.)
The arrival in Zion is our first sign that "Reloaded" will suffer from a paucity of ideas: The place suggests a Methodist church designed by Fritz Lang and Walt Disney. It's also home to the movie's most ridiculous scene, an overheated bacchanal in which Neo and Trinity make strenuous love while the Zionites bump torsos like extras in a Nate Dogg video. Middle-school sexuality likewise defines Morpheus' reunion with old flame Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) Ã� one of a handful of new "characters" who have already received more media coverage than their paltry screen time warrants.
The lazy script depends on some of the hoariest storytelling tropes around, and it keeps sacrificing its momentum to ill-timed, interminable outbreaks of the old psychobabble. The only such segment that really works is a gentle interchange between Neo and the down-home seer Oracle (Gloria Foster), once again the mischievous soul of the self-important goings-on.
So where do those three and a half stars come from? The visuals, of course. However much of the film is given over to pure spectacle Ã� and it feels like a good 45 minutes Ã� constitutes a clip reel of the miracles today's filmmakers can accomplish. A battle royal between Neo and a multitude of Agent Smiths (Hugo Weaving) is wicked fun, and a climactic freeway chase has more than its share of bullet-time bravado, too. Effects and choreography work in near-perfect harmony, summoning up that elusive quality that is the series' true ace in the hole: audacity. "Reloaded" only comes to life when it remembers that its real raison d'etre is to make your jaw drop and your mouth erupt in a doo-doo-eating grin at the same time.