Four years is a long time in movies. 1999 now seems like another age, a distant time when the prospect of The Phantom Menace was 100 times more enticing than some pretender called The Matrix. The what? Exactly. The tagline acknowledged the situation, but the response was: who cares? It was directed by nobodies (The Wach-somethingorothers), starred Keanu Reeves (Speed was a long time ago, Johnny Mnemonic horrifyingly fresh) and had a supporting cast of international men and women of mystery (Hugo Weaving, Carrie-Anne Moss...).
Now, in 4ABT (After Bullet Time), we are enlightened. You could say that we've swallowed the red pill. Or gone through the looking glass. We now know that The Matrix is, arguably, the most influential movie of the last 10 years, and we're true worshippers of this new celluloid religion. We're well versed in it, able to bow at the altar of The Boys' multiple influences: manga, kung-fu action flicks, Greek mythology, Christianity, Gnosticism, philosophy (Nietzsche, Baudrillard), Alice In Wonderland...
Reloaded is a new testament to Andy and Larry Wachowski's powers. Beginning with Trinity (Moss) hurtling through the air on a motorbike, departing the machine in a vertiginous backflip as it crashes into a power station, it then scales new levels. About 80 of them, our PVC-clad heroine diving through the side of a skyscraper, clutching guns as she shoots upwards at an Agent, the pair plummeting amid a cascade of broken glass.
As opening salvos go, it's an attention-grabber. Good job too, because you're looking at about 40 minutes before the Wachowskis again unleash the VFX dogs. Instead they set up the story, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar - including Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Neo (Reeves) and Trinity - learning of the machines' plan to burrow to the bottom of the rabbit hole. There lies Zion, the last human stronghold in the Real World.
And so we have the venerable race-against-time scenario, Neo and co having 72 hours to prepare Zion's citizens for the attack before setting off on an attempt to fulfill the prophesy and bring down the system. En route they encounter king of the underworld Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his wife Persephone (Monica Bellucci, who describes her character as "sex and death squeezed into latex"), as well as The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) and The Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), vital sockets in The Matrix grid. And then there are the baddies, including upgraded Agents and the ghostly Twins (Adrian and Neil Rayment), deleted programmes who roam The Matrix at will.
Okay, so Reloaded is flawed. It takes far too long to get going, there are too many `deep' discussions (What is choice? What is our purpose?) and the new gallery of supporting characters often add flab, not muscle. It also lacks that crucial element of surprise, no single moment being able to drop jaws like the first time the action span into Bullet Time way back in 1999.
But none of that quite stops Reloaded from being a five-star experience, if only because it's impossible to imagine another summer blockbuster getting anywhere near it. Just take the much-touted freeway chase: seven weeks to shoot, $40 million to fund, it's 14 minutes of sleek, supercharged brilliance, Trinity weaving through oncoming traffic on a motorbike as Morpheus and a granite-faced Agent punch and pirouette atop an 18-wheeler. Even better, the `camera' glides through the traffic with unprecedented freedom, swooping under axles and swerving between wheels.
Then there's the Burly Brawl, Neo taking on not one, not two, but 100 Agent Smiths, the virtual cinematography but a couple of frames away from the promised `photo-realism'. And you really will believe a man can fly, Neo's 2,000mph skydives guaranteed to pin you to your seat as he screeches by like Superman with a hydrogen bomb up his arse.
One thing's certain: when Reloaded fires, it really fires, mixing the Wachowski's dynamic framing ("frozen graphic moments"), Yuen Woo-Ping's wirework and John Gaeta's effects into a virtuoso virtu-dream plucked from fevered brows. What is Reloaded? At its best, it's the most vibrant, vital action movie you'll see for two or three years. Or at least six months, 'til Revolutions rolls into town.