movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 1999 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.)

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The Matrix
The Matrix virtually defies description. As one of the characters says, "Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself." The movie's closest antecedents are the wildly fantastic films of Hong Kong directors Tsui Hark and Ronnie Yu, movies such as Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain and The Bride With White Hair. That means The Matrix is filled with astonishing visuals unlike anything you've ever seen before in an American film.

Writers/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski, who also directed the stunning thriller Bound, have transplanted the incredible, no-holds-barred world of Hong Kong fantasy into a Western context. In The Matrix, nearly anything can (and does) happen. It takes place in a world where everything we know can be thrown out the window.

While Hong Kong fantasy films frequently rely upon popular folk legends, The Matrix draws its inspiration from the world of computers. Other American movies that have showcased a love of computer technology (such as Johnny Mnemonic) have labored under conventional storytelling that was periodically enlivened by digital effects. However, in The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers have created a world that is bound by no earthly laws. The Matrix surges from one outlandish scene to the next, carried by mind-boggling, gravity-defying action acrobatics and steely-blue set designs that simultaneously evoke Eraserhead and Blade Runner.

The Matrix doesn't come out of a complete vacuum. Another American movie, Dark City, actually trekked through some of the same territory. With cityscapes that periodically twisted and metamorphosed into new shapes, Dark City challenged our notions of reality. With The Matrix, that deconstruction of reality becomes complete: reality becomes simply a construct of our collective imaginations as manipulated by a powerful external force.

Keanu Reeves stars as a world-class computer hacker named Thomas Anderson who becomes the target of the proverbial "men in black." But instead of giving us Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as benevolent space-age police detectives protecting the earth, the dark-suited detectives in The Matrix (led by actor Hugo Weaving) have a more malevolent purpose. Anderson is guided from the clutches of the dark-suited, dark-shaded detectives by a mysterious man named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who promises to reveal to Anderson the great truths about the nature of reality: "The world has been been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth," says Morpheus. Morpheus' co-horts compare Anderson to Alice in Wonderland and joke that he has fallen down a rabbit hole. Through his eventual alignment with Morpheus and Morpheus' fellow soldiers (including Carrie-Anne Moss as a high-kicking, no nonsense solider named Trinity and Joe Pantoliano as a shifty-eyed solider who can't be trusted), Anderson slowly moves toward a better understand of the universe.

I'm not sure anything in the movie makes much sense, but the Wachowski brothers are such fascinating storytellers that I readily gave myself to the movie's hyper-stylized heady fusion of black leather, gun oil, and kung fu acrobatics. Even in scenes long familiar with fans of the action genre, the Wachowski brothers find ways to surprise us. For example, in one scene a helicopter slams into a skyscraper. There's nothing unusual about that. It seems to happen almost every other week in Hollywood action movies. However, the Wachowski brothers swing the camera near the surface of the skyscraper, allowing us to see the ripple that streaks down the side of the skyscraper as the helicopter strikes, and then the entire glass surface explodes in a billowing cloud of fragments. In other scenes, Reeves and Moss bounce off walls like a punked out Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as they avoid a hailstorm of bullets. Marble walls around them are reduced to rubble as Reeves and Moss twirl and slide, miraculously avoiding bullets while raising their fists, guns clutched in each hand, and returning a flurry of gunfire. Empty shell casings litter the pavement. And when the fighting moves to close quarters, fists and feet start flying in a blinding blur.

With kung fu sequences choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping of Once Upon a Time in China fame, the line between The Matrix and Hong Kong cinema becomes blurred. Reeves and the rest of the cast practiced with Yuen for several months before filming began. Reeves' movements never become as awe-inspiring as those of some of the great Hong Kong stars. I've heard audiences audibly gasp at the lightning fast moves of Jet Li, for example. But Reeves is good enough to convince American audiences.

The Matrix gets off to an uneven start with an okay but undistinguished first 15 minutes. In particular, the stop-motion camera tracking shots, where the action freezes and the camera moves around the combatants, look slick, yes, but they have the effect of completely knocking you out of the movie's world. However, once Anderson, Morpheus, and Trinity get together the movie moves to another level entirely. This is a near great movie of operatic intensity, but it's such an unusual movie that I'm guessing it will largely mystify American audiences, who usually prefer their action movies to come in predictable blockbuster packages. For viewers looking for something different, though, The Matrix will seem like a revelation. It has "cult movie" written all over it. This is the kind of movie that fans will discuss and argue about for years to come.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]