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Going back and rewatching The Matrix films, it was nice to see that the first movie did hold up. It was just as good as I remember, a techno-thriller with superhero aspirations that feel organic and well thought-out.
Starting up the second movie, I felt a bit of trepidation. Was I wrong about this movie? Was it actually better than I gave it credit for?
Doing That Superman Thing
I will happily report that, from the outset, The Matrix Reloaded is better than I credited. I remembered it being okay, betrayed by the third film, and while we'll discuss the third film and put it into context in the next article, I will admit that taken on its own, Matrix 2: Electric Boogaloo is pretty good.
We pick up an indeterminate amount of time after the first flick. Neo is now, to many, the messiah, the one that will end the war and save humanity. Unfortunately, there are forces conspiring against that plan. The machines are working on their invasion of the human city, Zion, and will be within its walls in a matter of days. To stop the machines, Neo will have to find the keymaster who will, then, lead The One to the Source, the machine mainframe. And then... stuff will happen or something.
Oh, and Agent Smith is back, somehow. After his apparent death at the hands of Neo in the previous movie, he rebuilt his code. Now, apparently, some of Neo's code has rubbed off and Smith has a whole new set of powers. Plus, he has his own nefarious plan for the Matrix. Neo will have to contend with Smith if he wants to save all of humanity.
Find the Keymaster
The story of The Matrix Reloaded is pretty superfluous, to be honest. Where the first one was a slow-build, giving you bits and pieces of the world so you learn who The One is and just what He can do, the second is just a continuation of his quest. It's a second act, a mid-point, where The One gets to complete a few tasks, finish a fetch quest, and reach his end-goal. It's not that nothing happens, but there really isn't a lot of story to it, just actions.
But boy is there a lot of action. When I reviewed the first Matrix I noted that while everyone calls it an "action film", it's' really more a thinking, techno-thriller kind of movie. Action is there, but its used sparingly and to accent key scenes. There is nothing sparing The Matrix Reloaded. We get a fight within the first few minutes, with Neo going up against new Agents. And then a fight after that when Neo goes to meet the Oracle (this whole fight against new character Serif could have been completely removed and no one would have noticed). Then there's a fight against Agent Smith and his army of clones (because that's a thing in this movie), a fight against werewolves, ghosts, and vampires (seriously) that then leads into a huge action set-piece on a highway (which is stunning, to be sure). Plus we have one more fight with Agent Smith near the end of the flick.
Don't get me wrong, I dug most of the action. The fight with the werewolves in the mansion of the Merovingian is a stunner, a great battle of kung fu and bullet time that shows off the films great choreography. The highway sequence is also great, with long car chases interspersed with gun-play and more kung fu. If there's any problem with it there's the fact that none of the villains this time around are as scary as the agents from the first film. Those guys were unstoppable killing machines -- when Morpheus faced Smith, he barely put a scratch on the guy. Here, though, Morpheus and Trinity can both hold their own against Agents (this despite the fact that they supposedly got upgrades to fight off Neo). What happened?
Here, Let Me Explain the Matrix to You, Again
While the action is great, there are so many scenes that aren't action where people just explain themselves over and over. The whole first act takes place largely in Zion. Morpheus talks to council-people. Morpheus talks to his commanding officer. The commanding officer talks to the council. And people drone on and one about what they "believe" and how their belief will affect the war. Truly, you will never hear the word "believe" more times than in the first half of The Matrix Reloaded.
Then we get to the long sequence with the Merovingian. He does love to drone on and on, talking about his wants, his desires. It's practically a five-minute monologue all so he can tell the heroes "no, I won't do what you want, so go away." His whole sequence could have been cut and we barely would have noticed. It's not like he really imparts any story (nothing of consequence certainly), he just hammers poorly thought out exposition with a sprinkling of fore-shadowing and, by the end of it, I was so bored.
Nothing the people say matters. The first film was lean and used its story beats to build the world up. By the second film, though, we already know this world, so all the talking, all the explaining, all the needless droning just gets to serve the big twist at the end.
What a Twist! (And Spoilers for a 15 Year Old Movie)
And, yes, there is a twist. We learn, eventually, that while Neo is "The One", he's not the first "One". The Matrix is now in its sixth iteration (think of it like v2.0.6, essentially), that there's a systemic flaw in the code, and The One is really just a fix for it. Each iteration, eventually The One is supposed to reinsert themselves in the Matrix, the machines kill everyone in Zion, and The One chooses a new, small group of people from the Matrix to repopulate the city. He's not the savior of the species, he's just a continuation of control.
While I can kind of see how this is interesting in the context of the story, it ruins the whole concept of The One. It de-mystifies his power, making him less than the superhero he was setup to be. Even when he bucks convention, he's doing it for selfish reasons, making him less honorable than we assumed he should be.
I did like, however, that the machines know The One is going to buck their system, ruining all their plans, so they're in emergency mode. In past viewings, seeing the machines tear everything down in the Matrix, delete all their old systems of control, it confused me. "Why would they do this," I thought, "if they wanted The One to come back?" But it clicked for me this time: they don't expect to win, so they're being sore losers. It's shortsighted, sure, but when you start to realize that all the machines, all the programs, are becoming more human as the Matrix continues running, that actually works. Humans are short-sighted, so why not the machines designed to emulate us, too?
He Is The One
Having watched it, I can state that The Matrix Reloaded is better than I remember it. The plot makes more sense (even if it is still pretty basic) and the action is great (even if the first film wasn't really an action movie). It's not as good as the original (although so few sequels stand up to the originals), but it doesn't betray the first film the way I originally thought it did.
However, I'm still expecting the third movie to be just as wretched as I remember...