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One rule do franchises live by:
What makes a profit must not die.
If it did well the first time round,
Then more will make it more renowned.
If it filled seats, there’s clearly steam
To push through sequels, it would seem,
And even decades afterward,
Do not discount a loyal nerd.
If it should fumble with a bomb,
We must not panic, must stay calm.
What makes a profit can rebound;
We’ll just do better next time round.

MPA rating for both: R

With the recent new installment in the Matrix series, it seemed like a good time to revisit the two parts of the initial trilogy that I never reviewed. There’s a reason that the first Matrix is the only one on my Top 365 movie list (currently #125 to be exact). The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, both released within months of each other in 2003, were an ambitious follow-up to the huge success of the original, and I certainly credit the Wachowskis for expanding their universe so imaginatively. Yet both films are also hopelessly flawed when explaining their own mythology, even as they both remain entertaining in their own way.

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The first film stands on its own well and could have done without a sequel, but it’s also easy to see why the story of Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss), and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) warranted a continuation, with details about the machines left vague and the human stronghold of Zion only mentioned. With The Matrix Reloaded, we finally get to see Zion, and although it’s an engineering marvel with its gritty steampunk design, it becomes rather laughable when a stirring speech from Morpheus about humanity’s resilience is followed up by a giant orgiastic rave in a cave. Likewise, between the Oracle’s circular counseling and the Merovingian’s smug pontificating about choice, the dialogue ranges from intriguing to insufferable depending on one’s capacity for philosophy.

However, when people stop talking and start fighting, Reloaded proves to be an action thrill ride, upping the ante of the first film with wilder stunts and cleverly imagined powers, the freeway chase being the heart-pounding high point. Although the first film established Neo’s supremacy over the Matrix, Reloaded manages to create worthy threats to his Superman-like status. With the machines closing in on Zion, Neo is told by the Oracle to seek out the Source of the Matrix, with plenty of agents, self-serving programs, and clones of rogue Agent Smith (still excellent Hugo Weaving) in his way. As for the cast, some of the supporting players stand out more than others, like Lambert Wilson’s Merovingian or Randall Duk Kim’s Keymaker, and it was nice to see a pre-Lost Harold Perrineau stepping in for the absent Tank as the new Operator for Morpheus’ ship.

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While Reloaded has its flaws, including an expository info dump toward the end that I doubt most people fully understood on the first viewing, it set the stage for what promised to be a potentially amazing finale, only for that potential to peter out in Revolutions. I don’t hate Revolutions the way some people decry the Star Wars prequels, but it does rank as one of the most disappointing threequels out there. For one thing, the padding is unmistakable, with Neo trapped for a while in a limbo train station for no plot-relevant reason. Yet I still must give Revolutions major props for its action; the defense of Zion remains one of the biggest, most epic battle scenes of all time, up there with Lord of the Rings and Avatar, while the final fight between Neo and Smith basically goes full Dragon Ball Z. By the end, though, it’s hard to look at this end of the trilogy as anything but a bummer; in one sense, Neo lives up to the many Christ-like parallels of his status as the One, but the intended bittersweetness is more bitter than sweet.

You could say The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were ahead of their time. It wasn’t yet common for sequels to be filmed back-to-back, and CGI was still in its development stage. One astounding sequence from Reloaded with Neo being overrun by a growing horde of Agent Smith clones is audacious and exciting, yet it’s easy to spot the point when the real actors are replaced with video-game-quality doubles. Likewise, one just has to take in stride details like the absence of Tank (Marcus Chong) or the recasting of the Oracle (the late Gloria Foster reprising her original role for Reloaded, then replaced by Mary Alice in Revolutions).

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How hard is it to forgive ambition falling short? I must find it rather easy, considering I love the Star Wars prequels, but I can see why others might have more objections. The Wachowskis didn’t need to give the world more Matrix films, with their convoluted storyline, excess of supporting characters, and philosophical pretention, but what they delivered is still pretty impressive in what it does well. Even a little more so when you factor in supplementary works like The Animatrix. They’re certainly not without merit; it’s just unavoidable for Reloaded and Revolutions that any Matrix follow-up is flawed compared with the original film’s now-classic reputation.

Best line from Reloaded: (Commander Lock) “Not everyone believes what you believe.” (Morpheus) “My beliefs do not require them to.”

Best line from Revolutions: (the Merovingian) “It is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity.”

Rank:  List Runners-up

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