More gravity defying fight sequences, more messianic programming lore, more Agent Smiths — this first sequel to THE MATRIX (1999) does its damnedest to live up to the mind-boggling success of the original and ups the ante accordingly. But lost in the hurly-burly is the original film's spooky, disquieting appeal to every paranoid thought that ever streaked through an unquiet psyche. Now that everyone knows what the Matrix is — the "world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth" — something needs to take the place of its darkly compelling mystery. Unfortunately, nothing does: This installment — which ends on an episodic TV-style cliffhanger — is pure, computer-generated spectacle, diverting in the moment but ultimately disposable. The story picks up where the first film's left off. Neo (Keanu Reeves) continues to develop his virtual-reality defying abilities, and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) persists in his belief that Neo is the prophesied messiah. Neo, he preaches, is the "One" who will lead the human race out of its bondage to parasitic machines that grow people in pods and suck the electrical charge from their comatose bodies. Meanwhile, the machines have launched an all-out attack against Zion, the human citadel where the enlightened who've awakened from their womb-like prisons cluster. Morpheus butts heads with Commander Lock (Harry Lennix) over how best to defend Zion, but the real conflict is rooted in the fact that both have loved fierce fighter Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), who has little to do but looks fabulous not doing it. Meanwhile, Neo is haunted by dreams of his lover Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) — whose kiss once brought him back from the dead — dying in the Matrix. The fetish-clad freedom fighters return to the Matrix to find the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), who can open the door to the uber-program's mainframe and, presumably, permit them to destroy it forever. Standing between them and success is an array of adversaries, including dozens of versions of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving); the Keymaster's wily kidnapper (Lambert Wilson) and his treacherously lovely wife, Persephone (Monica Bellucci); and a pair of dreadlocked albino twins (Neil and Adrian Rayment), literal ghosts in the machine. The characters are embedded in a now-familiar grab bag of religious, mythological and pop-culture references that stretch from ancient Babylon to BLADE RUNNER's (1982) dystopian future, but the allusions are overshadowed by the fists and feet of fury. More comic book-like and less intriguing than the original, the film's punch-drunk cyber-mysticism still has a darkly seductive allure that sets it apart from juvenile, STAR WARS-style space opera. -- Maitland McDonagh

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