Remember the Chinese philosopher who, upon waking from a vivid dream, wondered whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that he was a man? Even if you don't, you can bet your life the Wachowski brothers, Larry and Andy, do. The time is somewhere in the near future, and corporate drone Neo (Keanu Reeves), a computer programmer, is convinced there's something more to life than his humdrum existence. He's right, but not at all in the way he thinks. His enlightenment begins with a telephone call from Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who possesses an uncanny ability to predict what's going to happen just before it does and warns that Neo is in grave danger. Neo is baffled and scared, especially after he's arrested by a batch of goons in black and subjected to a terrifying interrogation: When he wakes up the next day, he has just about got himself convinced it was all a dream -- okay, one hell of a nightmare -- when unimpeachable evidence proves that it wasn't. To say much more than that Neo quickly finds himself on the run would be unfair to the Wachowskis' through-the-looking-glass plot, which manages to work surprisingly well on a number of levels: as a dystopian sci-fi thriller, as a brilliant excuse for the film's lavish and hyperkinetic fight scenes, and as a pretty compelling call to the dead-above-the-eyeballs masses to unite and cast off their chains. The Wachowskis come out of comics, and their achingly stupid script for ASSASSINS personifies every dire stereotype about comic-book-trained writers. But this dazzling pop allegory is steeped in a dark, pulpy sensibility that transcends nostalgic pastiche and stands firmly on its own merits. And it doesn't hurt

that the latex-and-shades-clad cast looks good enough to eat. -- Maitland McDonagh