Andy and Larry Wachowski’s first film, Bound, was brazenly high-concept: Two hot gangster babes fall in lust and decide to kill as many men as possible in their quest for a jackpot. Their new one, The Matrix, is concept and more concept—so much premise that there’s barely room for any dialogue. Considering that it stars Keanu Reeves, that’s probably for the best.

A dystopian cyberspace action movie whose premise combines elements of Terminator and Tron, The Matrix is one of those films that seems nearly inseparable from its marketing campaign. When one of the characters warns, “No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself,” it’s an ad slogan masquerading as plot development.

Let’s assume that that dictum is true, however, and not try to tell what the Matrix is. Suffice it to say that Thomas Anderson (Reeves) lives in a world that looks contemporary, Western, and urban, but isn’t; he senses as much, and under his secret hacker name, Neo, seeks the truth. His activities attract the attention of mysterious “agents,” like Smith (Aussie actor Hugo Weaving)—efficient, humorless drones who behave like parodies of U.S. Secret Service agents. Meanwhile, Neo is recruited by a small group of rebels who are among the few humans who really understand the state of the world (or so they say). He first encounters Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who dresses like a model and moves like Jet Li. (Hong Kong fight coordinator Yuen Wo Ping, who choreographed Li’s motions in Once Upon a Time in China and its sequels, supervised the film’s physical action.) Then he meets rebel leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who is convinced that Neo is “the one”—a cyber kung fu Jesus, or at least Spartacus.

Once the rebels have explained the situation to Neo and trained him to fight the agents, the balance shifts from high-tech to hand-to-hand. Much of The Matrix is unapologetic homage to the most stylized forms of Hong Kong action cinema, with actors suspended on wires so they can leap, flip, and hover in midair for gravity-defying periods of time. The effect is slicker and more seamless than in most HK movies, but not as inventive: There’s nothing here to top, for example, the high-ladder fight Yuen choreographed for Once Upon a Time in China.

What The Matrix lacks, unsurprisingly, is the playfulness of its HK antecedents. The movie makes reference to everything from Alien to Alice in Wonderland, with a little Cronenbergian body horror for good measure; there’s even a Thoreau-like judgment on the lives of ordinary people that may very well be meant as a joke. Still, in its quieter moments, the film recalls those dreadfully solemn MCI commercials that starred Anna Paquin, and Reeves does his usual, which is to play his character from the Bill and Ted movies, only straight. The Matrix asks you to root for the freedom-loving rebels against the robotic agents, but both seem equally mechanical.CP

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