Dir. and writ. Andy & Larry Wachowski; feat. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, Monica Bellucci, Harold Perrineau Jr. (R)

Hear that unusual silence around you at the office? That's the sound of your fanboy co-workers, who skipped out of work today so they could be among the first to see the new installment in the Matrix trilogy. If this review of the summer's most anticipated film seems unusually brief (thanks to a late press screening), those co-workers can fill in the gaps when they get back from their "doctor's appointments."

Obviously, this is a must-see for many filmgoers. Those on the fence should know a few things: Unlike the first

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix Reloaded.
film, this is a cliffhanger, raising more questions than it answers about the fate of mankind. (Even the answers the film provides raise questions, if you're paying attention.) It's also bigger and more confident than the original in every way, which isn't entirely a good thing.

On the downside, the Wachowski Brothers pump far more rambling, philosophical conversations into the screenplay than they need. Worried that we might miss the key theme of free will versus predestination, they beat it into the ground. This might help those viewers who need convincing that the brothers are creating their own techno-age mythology, but one of the first film's assets was the way it showed us its themes in action, and kept the talking to a minimum.

Speaking of action, it's tempting to say that the filmmakers have gone overboard on that front as well - but that would be a little ridiculous. Reloaded has some mighty big visual shoes to fill, and it does the job well with more, more, more of what was stunning the first time around. Bigger chases, longer fights, more toying with the laws of physics. (Oh yeah - more product placement, too.) Hugo Weaving's outrageously uptight Mr. Smith can now replicate himself indefinitely, and watching him play off his own clones is a hoot.

Some of the new auxiliary characters don't live up to Weaving's standard - a baddie of indeterminate origin and a syrupy French accent is supposed to be annoying, and succeeds - but others, like one called The Keymaster, do - by understanding that all the scene-stealing slots are already taken.

As it begins in premonitions of death, proceeds largely in sun-starved caves near the Earth's core, and continually tests the truths its characters hold dear, Reloaded is self-consciously a dark "middle film," aspiring to the heights of The Empire Strikes Back. As a single installment, it doesn't quite reach them - the Wachowskis don't entirely match their ideals of harmony and balance - but it's easy to see the direction this is headed, and tempting to wager that The Matrix Revolutions will make all this exposition pay off, and then some. •


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