A cyber sci-fi blowout of wetware-boggling visual effects and advanced comic book storytelling, Warner Bros.' "The Matrix" will open mightily and have a wide-open month to become early 1999's biggest hit.
Word-of-mouth will be giddy, with young and mature males lining up for a technologically stunning movie that furthers the genre and features crowd-pleasing performances to go with the frequent scenes of gunplay and violence.
Kudos to the writing and directing team of Larry and Andy Wachowski -- who debuted impressively with the small-scale, tightly wound "Bound" -- for fashioning a brain-twisting, eye-popping thriller that recalls "Total Recall", "The Terminator" and Stanislaw Lem's great novel "The Futurological Congress", with the lead character played by Keanu Reeves discovering that everyday reality is a computer-created illusion and that future humans are locked in an epic struggle with intelligent machines.
Opening with an explosive sequence in which a leather-clad woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) with amazing leaping and fighting abilities is chased by cops and scary men in suits, "Matrix" is an adrenalin rush from the start and pushes the envelope in stylish, inspired action sequences. But the characters are not forgotten or secondary, and many of the best moments belong to the actors.
A loner with a cyber-identity, Neo (Reeves) lives in a metropolis of the near future and through Trinity he's warned that "they" are after him. "They" are the men in suits, led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who nab defiant but naive Neo at his work and insert a metallic bug in him, hoping he will lead them to the mysterious Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne).
But Morpheus and his comrades get to him swiftly, remove the bug and offer Neo the chance to join them, though by the nature of the situation he doesn't know what awaits him. Speaking cryptically about the "truth," Morpheus says he must choose to take a journey like Lewis Carroll's Alice, one with irreversible consequences to his understanding of reality.
So Neo takes the plunge and the movie takes a big leap conceptually when it's revealed that the story is actually taking place hundreds of years from now when humans have lost a globally catastrophic war against machines created by artificial intelligence programs run amok. Vat-bound humans are bred by the machines to provide power, with each "battery" hooked up to the Matrix, a virtual construct that resembles Earth as we more or less know it.
Morpheus, Trinity and Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) are rebels in a hovercraft called the Nebuchadnezzar who have unplugged themselves from the Matrix and sought out Neo because "he's the one" prophetized by the "oracle." Neo just might be able to defeat the machines.
Absorbing when it isn't going a little overboard -- like it does during a John Woo-like gun battle in a lobby -- "Matrix" has several super kung fu sequences, including use of Hong Kong-style wire-stunt work and what the Wachowskis have dubbed "bullet-time photography" or "Flow-Mo", an awesome physics-defying effect inspired by Japanese anime.
Reeves is good as the somewhat fragile but adaptable hero. Fishburne is savvy casting as Nero's guide and protector, and Moss and Pantoliano also are impressive. But the big scene stealer is Weaving as the relentless opponent and embodiment of the Matrix's creators. His deadpan delivery and ultra-serious demeanor is chipped away with growing frustration, and the Australian contributes much of the film's nervous humor.
In association with Village Roadshow Pictures
-- Groucho II Film Partnership
A Silver Pictures production
Writers-directors: The Wachowski brothers
Producer: Joel Silver
Director of photography: Bill Pope
Production designer: Owen Paterson
Editor: Zach Staenberg
Costume designer: Kym Barrett
Music: Don Davis
Neo: Keanu Reeves
Morpheus: Laurence Fishburne
Trinity: Carrie-Anne Moss
Agent Smith: Hugo Weaving
Cypher: Joe Pantoliano
Running time -- 136 minutes
MPAA rating: R
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