Brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski are building themselves quite an odd little resume. Their first film credit was for co-writing the critically reviled Sylvester Stallone/Antonio Banderas dum-dum action film "Assassins." Next came their joint writing-directing debut, "Bound," a 1996 indie hit and the ultimate guy flick: It worked a steamy lesbian relationship (between Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly) into a violent, smartly plotted mob doublecross story.
At times you think the Chicago-raised brothers have bitten off more than they can chew. They wrote "The Matrix" before "Bound," and it has the feel of a story concocted by younger minds not yet wary of overreaching.
The concept is an engaging one: A computer-savvy young man nicknamed Neo (Reeves) is recruited by a group of seemingly superhumans to thwart a conspiracy that keeps the world's population living in a virtual reality -- that is, people don't realize that their entire environment apparently is electronically generated.
Sinister computers are involved in perpetrating the false world, and a group of male "agents," dressed in gray suits and sporting sleek shades, are the enforcers. Carrying the flag for true reality are the mythical leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and a stoic, tremendously agile woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). They think Neo is "The One" -- the trump card for the forces of good.
The story's riffs on artificial intelligence and electronically created environments feel timely, yet many of the ideas aren't so new. "Total Recall," among other science-fiction works, similarly explored the intersection of physical and mental landscapes, the "Terminator" movies previously envisioned a time-spanning man-versus-machine battleground, and Neo's training as a possibly predestined hero is reminiscent of a certain Jedi knight.
The Wachowski brothers also enjoy drawing overt parallels to the adventures of Lewis Carroll's Alice -- both in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which in this case is a liquid mirror. At one point Neo must choose to swallow either a blue or red pill, one to return him to life's illusions and the other to send him exploring beneath the surface.
"Buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye-bye," warns a character named Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), begging the question of whether merging Wonderland and Oz constitutes a mixed metaphor.
Yet if the storytelling occasionally gets too wrapped up in its tangle of mythical allusions and abstract concepts, the movie remains fun to watch. The Wachowskis and cinematographer Bill Pope take advantage of currently available technical trickery to create visually distinct levels of reality while setting high-speed cameras in motion to make the action sequences particularly dynamic and fluid.
(Although "The Matrix" was filmed in Sydney, the Wachowskis fill it with Chicago geographical references such as the State and Balbo subway station. "Bound" also took place in Chicago but was filmed in Los Angeles.)
Neo enjoys the perk of downloading various martial arts into his head, and the fights are conducted Hong Kong style with the combatants flying around on invisible wires. Also exciting is a sequence in which Neo, chased by agents through the gray cubicles of his workplace, is guided via cell phone by the seemingly omniscient Morpheus, who knows just what moment Neo should turn or head out to the window ledge.
There's something about Reeves' boyishly handsome, sweetly blank looks that encourage filmmakers to envision him as a higher-plane human. He has already played Bernardo Bertolucci's Siddhartha in "Little Buddha" as well as Satan's chief recruit in "The Devil's Advocate," and his noggin was a vessel for much downloaded information in the woeful "Johnny Mnemonic." Neo isn't much of a stretch for him, yet he plays the athletic innocent with enough credibility and appeal to keep us on his side.
Moss, best known for television work in series such as "Models Inc." and "Due South," is more of a surprise, a quiet yet commanding presence, perhaps because her face actually reveals some age and, thus, character and sex appeal. Whoever performs and choreographs her stunt work deserves credit as well; Trinity's best move is a dive into a building's open window, down a flight of stairs and into a somersault that ends with her pointing her gun at her pursuers.
Fishburne is fine as Morpheus, but the villain steals the show. As the evil Agent Smith, Australian actor Hugo Weaving ("The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," "Proof") has a wonderfully droll delivery, lingering over his words as if they're particularly delectable candies.
"The Matrix" may not be as profound as it aspires to be, and it doesn't explore its characters enough to connect us to their hearts -- the love story, predictably, falls flat. But the writing remains more intelligent than most thrillers, and the action is executed with such panache that even if you don't buy the reality of "The Matrix," it's a helluva place to visit.
Written and directed by the Wachowski Brothers; photographed by Bill Pope; edited by Zach Staenberg; production designed by Owen Paterson; music by Don Davis; produced by Joel Silver. A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 2:10. MPAA rating: R (sci-fi violence).
Neo .................. Keanu Reeves
Morpheus ....... Laurence Fishburne
Trinity .......... Carrie-Anne Moss
Agent Smith .......... Hugo Weaving
Cypher ............. Joe Pantoliano