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Review: 'Matrix' visually stunning, but empty

Special effects overwhelm everything

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Matrix Reloaded
Keanu Reeves returns as Neo in "The Matrix Reloaded."

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(CNN) -- "The Matrix Reloaded" is a mind-blowing, state-of-the-art effects extravaganza that will take your breath away.

The Wachowski brothers, the creators of "The Matrix" franchise and this second edition of the ground-breaking trilogy, have once again raised the bar regarding what is possible in an action/adventure blockbuster.

Unfortunately, the result is not really a feature film. It's a video game.

A damn good video game, but a video game nevertheless -- albeit one hot-wired to the joystick of every video junkie/adolescent male in the universe. Because of that, it will make hundreds of millions of dollars.

All the main players have returned. Laurence Fishburne reprises his role as as Morpheus, a mystic teacher who thinks he has found a reluctant prophet in the form of Thomas "Neo" Anderson, once again played by Keanu Reeves. Carrie-Anne Moss slips into latex again as Trinity, Neo's love interest and a fellow freedom fighter against the machines.

Also back -- and back and back and back and back again -- is the evil Agent Smith, played again and again and again by Hugo Weaving.

Coming back for more

If you saw the original "Matrix," then beware: this sequel is the second verse, same as the first.

Matrix Reloaded
The evil Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) challenges Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in "The Matrix Reloaded."

That's not to say the ante hasn't been raised in regard to the computer-generated images (CGI). It has -- big time. The effects are best displayed in the fight sequences, as the camera appears to sweep around 360 degrees, then spin inside out. Ditto for the effects created to show the machines as they relentlessly dig toward the human city of Zion.

But all of these staggering images do little to enhance the innate drama of the story, or advance any kind of real character development. Ultimately, all the razzle-dazzle becomes mind-numbingly repetitive and drains the film of any tension involving the main players. No matter how many times Neo destroys the evil agents, they just keep coming back, like malevolent Energizer bunnies. (Or is that redundant?)

As in the original, "The Matrix Reloaded" is full of mumbo-jumbo regarding spiritualism and Eastern philosophy, mixed with Hong Kong-style martial arts fights, cyberpunk action, and slam edits. But the slow-motion bends and the mind-boggling visuals, such as "bullet time" and other CGI tricks used in both films, have lost some of their ability to amaze and surprise.

Another issue may be that when "The Matrix" first appeared in the spring of 1999, with its "man against machines" mind-set, it hit a deep nerve with the moviegoing public. At the time, rumors were running rampant about the Y2K bug. Those fears, of course, proved groundless, and three-plus years later, the subject has lost its urgency.

Strong, silent niche

Matrix Reloaded
Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) expand their romantic relationship in "The Matrix Reloaded."

It's no secret that Reeves -- while universally liked by his peers -- is a movie star whose acting talents are marginal at best. Whenever he attempts a layered performance with subtext and nuance -- or a lot of dialogue -- it's a disaster. (Two cases in point: the unwatchable "A Walk In The Clouds" in 1995, or "Sweet November" in 2001.)

But he does excel at playing the strong silent type, a la Gary Cooper or Alan Ladd, and with the "Matrix" franchise, he's found a niche.

Fishburne and Moss are mostly reduced to reacting against blue screens instead of acting. Nevertheless, they do the best they can with the limited script. Weaving, as Agent Smith, is given little to do but appear menacing.

All in all, "The Matrix Reloaded" is visually astounding and aimed like a heat-seeking missile at its key audience of male viewers between the ages of 14 and 22. Unfortunately, those under 17 can't get into an R-rated movie (well, they're not supposed to be able to get in), and even if their parents take them, it's unlikely that parents will go again and again, which is what turns summer films into summer blockbusters. On the other hand, the original, also rated R, did make $460 million worldwide, and millions more on DVD.

So despite its faults, "The Matrix Reloaded" will be a contender for the summer's box office champ, even though it is -- in the end -- a group of underdeveloped characters in search of a plot.

"The Matrix Reloaded" opens nationwide on Thursday, May 15, and is rated R. The film was produced by Warner Bros., which is a division of AOL Time Warner -- also the parent company of CNN.

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