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by: Scott Renshaw

Our collective existential/millennial/Y2K-bug angst now has been channelled officially into one cinematic premise: the line between reality and virtual reality is growing too thin for comfort, and cyberspace is intruding on our personal space. No fewer than three 1999 releases are set to spook us with our infatuation with jacked-in sensation: eXistenZ, THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR, and the first entry, THE MATRIX. Though the marketing campaign (and official web site) teases us with the cryptic question "what is The Matrix?", it wouldn't be giving anything away to say that it's something you'll be seeing a lot of over the next few months.

We'll all be fortunate if what we see is as kinetically entertaining as THE MATRIX. The story begins as mild-mannered software engineer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) -- alias hacker-for-hire Neo -- begins to suspect that something is strange in his world. He has been contacted by a mysterious woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) on behalf of infamous hacker Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and has become the target of shadowy agents led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). His very concept of reality bending around him, Neo meets with Morpheus to learn an astonishing truth: nothing in his experience is what it appears to be, and Neo himself may be the key to saving all humanity.

If that description seems a bit coy, it's only because part of the fun in the first half of THE MATRIX is allowing its bizarre cosmology to unfold. On the surface it bears a resemblance to 1998's psycho-dystopia DARK CITY, but writer/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski (BOUND) avoid the murky pretentiousness that turned DARK CITY into art direction in search of a movie. Though there's plenty of exposition required to explain what's going on in THE MATRIX, the Wachowskis manage to do it with a wink and a smile, investing the expository segments with wit and imagination. The film's first hour is somewhat slow going, yet even while waiting for it to gain momentum there's a certain confidence that it will.

And boy, does it ever. The action sequences in THE MATRIX are some of the best in a long time, combining wicked visual effects (familiar to those who've seen any Gap commercials lately) with creative choreography. Fully aware that they're dealing physics of their own invention, the Wachowskis let loose with both barrels, sending THE MATRIX over-the-top and into the realm of video game excess. Amazingly, it almost never feels like a video-game movie, thanks mostly to the Wachowskis' sure-handed pacing but also to some ingenious casting. They take advantage of Keanu Reeves for all the pretty-boy befuddlement he's worth, even having some fun with his less-than-brilliant image; Hugo Weaving's clinically enunciated diction helps turn Agent Smith into a perfect icy antagonist. THE MATRIX is a blast, but it's never a dumb blast. Where else would you find a hero adding "Drunken Boxing" to his fighting repertoire?

There are plenty of places where it feels like THE MATRIX could have been tidied up a bit -- a lengthy chase here, a pointless romantic angle there, a conversation about why everything tastes like chicken over there -- to bring the running time down below two hours. It's the kind of movie that will turn off plenty of viewers, either because of its violence, its convoluted story or its pokiness in getting to the good stuff. Others will see THE MATRIX as the kind of film that makes use of action and special effects instead of being used by them, the kind of film that takes that extra moment to turn its big showdown into a classic spaghetti Western confrontation. If virtual reality is the flavor of the month, plug me in to something like THE MATRIX, and give me a world where the adventure is worth two hours of my time.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 reality checks: 7.


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