Guardian (UK), June 11, 1999
Carry on up the cyber
Forget Johnny Mnemonic, says Peter Bradshaw, The Matrix will make you love Keanu again
After the flop that was Johnny Mnemonic, the idea of casting Keanu Reeves in another virtual reality thriller must have taken a lot of nerve. Either that or they really wanted Ben Affleck and Ben's availabilities didn't work out. In any case, I must admit that if I had been offered a chance a year ago to invest in The Matrix starring Keanu Reeves, I would have said no thanks, I've already made plans to put all my money in a box and throw it over a cliff.
Boy, would I have been wrong. Because The Matrix is a wonderfully enjoyable pulp classic - an unalloyed pleasure from first to last, crammed with hi-tech, high-camp action sequences and spiffy effects. And it achieves what I never dreamt was possible - it makes us fall in love with Keanu Reeves all over again.
From the first close-up on that boyish, angular face, with the hairline dipping into a little asymmetric V over the enigmatic features, and the eyebrow, into which - am I imagining it? - a tiny nick or gap has been shaved, we know this is going to be something very super from Keanu.
"Not too bright, huh?" is an impertinent observation from one of the characters on Keanu's intellectual underperformance. Well, maybe not. But a bit of pert, ingenuous cluelessness is surely what we want in our cyber-action heroes.
Keanu plays a computer hacker called Neo. (A name which deserves an Academy Award itself.) By day, he has a straight job in a software company, but by night he gets down with the alternative online community, busting into secure systems, pirating ultra-cool games and gossiping about the electrifying rumour concerning something called "The Matrix", an occult alternative reality or higher-consciousness system accessible only to those enlightened in the way of artificial intelligence.
Neo is contacted from the other side by a devastatingly sexy cyber-warrior called Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), dressed in liquefying black leather, who leads him to the one man who can tell him the sinister truth about The Matrix: Morpheus (these names!), who is big, bald, powerful and played by Laurence Fishburne. It is Morpheus who reveals the terrifying reality about The Matrix: namely, that our waking lives are a gigantic, baroque dream implanted in our minds by a race of machine-monsters to whom we humans came second in a nuclear war, that our bodies are now being bred in darkness on gigantic intergalactic factory farms to provide "bio-energy" for the conqueror, and that we are kept docile with a virtual reality illusion of a rich, busy existence.
How can I describe the expression on Keanu's face on hearing this terrifying news? It is the same as the expression on anyone else's face on opening a higher than expected gas bill. But it is precisely this impassivity, this tough, stoic alertness which inspires extravagant adoration not merely from all of us in the auditorium, but also from Morpheus, Trinity and the rest of the resistance, who think of him as the "Chosen One" who will lead the insurrection against The Matrix.
The fight scenes in this film are a complete joy. Keanu gains expertise in various Oriental techniques via implanted software - a mini-disc is clunked into the back of his neck, he turns around and breathes wonderingly: "I know Kung Fu..." I say, Keanu, do you really? Yes indeed, and pale, wussy Keanu gets fight scenes that are stylish, exhilarating and beautifully designed.
Movies about virtual reality, or those ostentatiously sporting virtual reality effects, usually tend to be bad; they rely on a lot of sub-William Gibson babble, no-brainer stuff - artificial intelligence for the naturally unintelligent. Moreover, they fail to understand that a good movie should itself be a form of virtual reality, and that a second level of techno-fantasy added in this medium looks tinny, tacky and surplus to requirements.
But The Matrix winningly surmounts these obstacles; it unselfconsciously creates its own weird, deadpan universe, its visual effects are worn lightly, and Andy and Larry Wachowski, who wrote and directed it, appreciate that there has to be a lot of sweaty action on the level of actual reality. The producer is Joel Silver, the veteran Hollywood action maestro, who can count The Matrix as another triumph. (Spago should have a house band play Hail To The Chief when he makes an entrance.)
This is a fantastically enjoyable summer movie which should easily see off some other dinosaur contenders I could mention. Check it out this weekend. The Matrix rocks!