Tag: Monica Bellucci

The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Tension, drama and thrills… all go missing in these increasingly ponderous self-important sequels

Director: The Wachowskis

Cast: Keanu Reeves (Neo), Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus), Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity), Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith), Jada Pinkett Smith (Niobe), Monica Bellucci (Persephone), Lambert Wilson (The Merovingian), Gloria Foster/Mary Alice (The Oracle), Helmut Bakaitis (The Architect), Harold Perrineau (Link), Ian Bliss (Bane), Harry Lennix (Commander Lock), Collin Chou (Seraph), Nona Gaye (Zee), Gina Torres (Cas), Randul Duk Kim (The Keymaker), Daniel Bernhardt (Agent Johnson)

If you ever want to study a crash-course in how not to make sequels to a genre redefining film, these might be the perfect examples. I’m going to break a golden rule here and review them both together, which I’ve not done for anything else so far in this blog. The flaws in these films are so interlinked, I think you have to almost treat the whole misfire as one single, dreadfully disappointing film. And I just couldn’t bear the idea about writing two articles about each of them.

It’s six months after the events of The Matrix. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is an invulnerable phenomenon in the Matrix. He and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are in love. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is being dragged over the coals by Starfleet Command (I know it isn’t called that, but it might as well be) for disobeying orders. And even worse news than that: the Machines have found the location of Zion, the secret last human city in the world. And they plan to destroy it – in 72 hours. Neo must undertake one final mission in the Matrix to find the secrets that will prevent this destruction of the human race – and he’ll have to do it with only the support of his friends, as the rest of mankind decides to batten down the hatches and wait for the uncoming storm. But is there more going on here than we think? Is there more to Neo’s existence than meets the eye? Why is he being plagued with dreams of Trinity’s death? And what is going on with Smith (Hugo Weaving) who know seems to be acting as rogue agent, working against man and machine?

The answers are all eventually revealed, with maximum pomposity and self-importance, over the nearly five hours these sequels drone on, seemingly determined to drain out everything that anyone found cool about the original movie and leave it with a stuffy, pretentious, dull shell that won’t win any new converts over. Before these films, The Matrix was a franchise that would have a life in films, video games, anime and fan fiction for decades to come. After them, it was dead in the water.

Why? What did people like about the first film? They liked the action sure, and they liked the cool action and visuals and the anti-authoritarian nose thumbing. But those all really worked because we related to the characters, we saw that they were vulnerable, outmatched and in peril. In the real world they were plucky, brave resistance fighters. In the Matrix they were desperate rebels who could do really cool things. This all gets blown away here. In the Matrix, Neo is now so invulnerable, that fights are pointless: they are little more than dull displays of choreography with inevitable outcomes. Reloaded hammers home time and again Neo can do anything he likes in the Matrix. Fighting hundreds of clones of Smith at once? No problem. Flying faster than the speed of sound? Sure thing. Reworking the reality to suit him? It’s just a shrug of the shoulders.

This is a disaster to drama in two ways. Firstly, it drains all the peril out of any moment in the Matrix world because we know that there is no way Neo can get hurt – or that he will allow any of his friends to get hurt. Secondly, it means to get any tension Neo has to be somehow depowered or separated from everyone else. This happens three times over the films: Neo gets dispatched to China, flung into an underground station purgatory and blinded in the real world. When the film becomes reliant on continuously finding a way to put its hero out of the way (a blight that also often hits Superman on film), you know you are in trouble.

Where Neo is still vulnerable, is the real world where the films spend more and more time. Sadly, the real world is a tedious, uninvolving place. Remember in the first film where Morpheus seemed like a super cool, sage-like leader of a rebellion? Well in fact he’s just a cog in a large, stuffy command structure that takes all the worst, most uncool elements of Star Trek’s Starfleet and doubles down on it. Zion is a stereotypical sci-fi city, with characters dressed in flowing robes, quasi-uniforms or urban rags (that’s when they are dressed at all – Reloaded’s early doors rave/orgy rightly draw oceans of sniggers). The real human world isn’t a gang of plucky, anti-authoritarian types but a typical sci-fi, rules-bound society. The flair of our characters is stripped from them.

All this is wrapped in a package that doubles down on the stuffy, Bluffer’s Guide to Philosophy that popped up in the first film. There it added a bit of self-regarding intellectual heft to a film about people kicking each other and dodging bullets, here it’s the be-all-and-end-all. But the films are nowhere near as clever as they think they are: various characters parrot crudely scripted stances on everything from free will to determinism to the greater good. None of it is new or intriguing, and nearly all of it feels like the directors straining to show off their reading list.

It hits its apotheosis in Reloaded as the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), the bearded brain behind the Matrix, lays out in a long speech how Neo is in fact a part of the Matrix programme designed to help the system reboot and refresh in cycles, an interesting idea totally crushed under the weight of needlessly long, incomprehensible words, phrases and Latin quotes that don’t sound smart, only like the speech was written out in plain English and then run through a thesaurus.

And it was a neat idea that our Messiah might actually have been created by the machines to help their prison renew itself. But it gets lost in the clumsy, pleased with itself delivery, in conversations about choice and free will (will Neo choose his destiny or saving Trinity’s life? Guess!) and the generally turgid plotting. This gets worse in Revolutions which finally seeps the life out of the franchise, with a video-game shoot-out at Zion (which makes no tactical sense), a trek by Neo and Trinity to commune with the machines and Agent Smith converting every human being in the Matrix into a copy of himself, in a vague philosophical comment on the death of individuality.

The worst thing about these films is that they are self-important, hard to enjoy and often more than a little silly. Fights take place at great length with very little tension. Reloaded does have a fab freeway car chase – but again it depends on Neo being absent for any tension to exist (and as soon as he turns up it’s all solved in seconds). Almost everything in the real world is stuffy, earnest and bogged down in the sort of uncool sci-fi tropes the first film stayed away from. Nearly anything in the Matrix involves watching a God like figure hitting things (including a bizarre ten-pin bowling effect when Neo knocks over a host of Smiths).

The actors struggle to keep up the genre-redefining cool that made the first film so popular. Fishburne looks bored (and rightly so, since his dialogue is awful and he’s given almost nothing to do in Revolutions) and Weaving treats the whole thing as a joke. Reeves is earnest, but frequently restrained by the dullness of his role as an almighty God. Moss has most of the best material as Trinity makes drastic decisions for love and faith. The rest of the cast struggle with either paper-thin characters, painfully over-written dialogue or a mixture of both.

The Matrix sequels managed to drain out everything that was great about the original. Where that was nimble, these were stuffy. Where these were anti-authoritarian, these laid out a dull and stereotypical sci-fi society. Where the first was gripping, desperate and adrenalin fuelled, this sees invulnerable heroes, extended runtimes and a frequent lack of peril. Worst of all Revolutions in particular feels like hundreds of other “sci-fi war films” and about a million miles from the actual revolution of the first film. It doubles down on nearly everything that was less good in the original and strips out the things that most impacted people. How not to make a sequel.

Spectre (2015)

Bond heads into danger in thematic mess Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Christoph Waltz (Franz Oberhauser/Ernst Stavro Blofeld), Léa Seydoux (Dr Madeleine Swann), Ralph Fiennes (M), Ben Whishaw (Q), Naomie Harris (Eve Moneypenny), Dave Bautista (Mr Hinx), Andrew Scott (Max Denbigh), Monica Bellucci (Lucia Sciarra), Rory Kinnear (Bill Tanner), Jesper Christensen (Mr White)

SPOILERS: Okay, surely most people have seen this by now – but just in case I’m going to spoil the big twist of Spectre. It is, by the way, a really, really, really stupid, annoying terrible twist. So you won’t mind. But just in case you do… Spoilers.

In 2002, Austin Powers: Goldmember had, amongst its ridiculous plotlines, a reveal that Austin Powers and Dr Evil were, in fact, long lost brothers. It was the crowning height of silliness in the franchise, the ultimate punchline to Mike Myers’ James Bond spoof. Well the wheel comes full circle: in 2015, Spectre’s shock plot reveal was – James Bond and Ernst Stavro Blofeld – wait for it – they were only – guess what! – raised by the same man, so basically sorta brothers! Who would have thunk it? The world’s greatest spy and world’s greatest villain both grew up together. Yup, the Bond producers actually thought this was a good idea. Yup they were completely wrong.

Spectre opens in Mexico with Bond (Daniel Craig) preventing an attack on a football stadium – although this attack basically involves trashing an entire city block. Benched by M (Ralph Fiennes), he investigates the shadowy organisation known as Spectre, which he discovers is run by Franz Oberhauser (Christop Waltz), a man Bond seems to know a great deal about. Meanwhile M engages in Whitehall battles with the intelligence director Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) and his sinister “Nine Eyes” programme, designed to control all surveillance in the developed world.

Spectre is a film that really falls apart in its final third, as ridiculous revelation piles on top of ludicrous contrivance. After Skyfall, we all wanted Sam Mendes to come back to do another Bond film, but this makes every single mistake that film avoided: self-conscious,  silly in the wrong way, takes itself way too seriously, despite its best efforts it doesn’t really do anything new, and attempts to build a “Bond universe” around a franchise that works because it keeps reinventing itself in stand-alone films. It’s the Bond producers attempt to do a Marvel film – and it ain’t pretty. Did we need to create some sort of tenuous link between the Craig-era Bond movies? Did we need Blofeld and Bond to have a “very personal” connection? No we massively did not.

Mendes shoots the action with a mock grandeur that seems to be serving other things than the plot. Critics fawned over the long shot that follows Bond through the Day of the Dead street festival, through a hotel, out of a window, across a series of roofs and into the first action scene. But for me, it’s a self-conscious, look-at-me piece of trickery. It’s an air of pretention that runs through the whole film: it’s a film that wants you to think it’s making Big Points around Bond’s psychology and background, but keeps running aground because it goes about them in such a ham fisted way, particularly when compared to Skyfall’s subtlety and willingness to look at Bond’s vulnerability.

Most sequences in the film feels strangely flat and lifeless. There is a surprisingly sterile car chase through the streets of Rome between Bond and Hinx. The opening montage in Mexico just never really grips – maybe because it’s not clear what’s going on, maybe because it feels so self-consciously grandiose. The film’s tone is over the place – there are lashings of Moore. Bond falls through a collapsing building only to land on a sofa. During the car chase, Bond hits a button only to have some Frank Sinatra start playing on the radio. Craig does at least go through the comedy with a breezy lightness, though it sits oddly in a film that features a villain shooting himself in the head, and a guy having his eyes gouged out. 

The whole investigation into Spectre just isn’t interesting. Because the film has been written with such a self-conscious eye on fandom, it never gives us a reason within the film to care about it at all. Spectre don’t seem to be doing anything, other than being a shady organisation making money. We don’t get told why Bond is invested in it or Oberhauser until late in the day. The film pins everything on a “beyond the grave” video from Judi Dench’s M to give us a reason for chasing this plot. But nothing feels at stake and we don’t get told about Bond’s personal stake in it until almost the end – and even when we do, Bond doesn’t really seem to give a toss about the reveal.

Ah yes. The reveal. A few years ago, Star Trek Into Darkness had a terrible, nonsensical reveal around Benedict Cumberbatch’s character – turns out he was Khan. This was met with derision because (a) it had no impact on the wider viewers who didn’t know who Khan was, (b) it felt shoe-horned in as fan service, and (c) it had no impact on the characters in the film who’d never met Khan before. So who cared? He might as well have said “My real name is Fred”. This was the case with the Blofeld reveal here. The name means little to non-Bond fans. And it means naff-all to Bond. We’ve never heard it mentioned in the film before. It comes out of nowhere. It means nothing – it’s dropped into the film to get a cheer at comic con – so nakedly so, that it just annoyed people.

It doesn’t help that the whole “secret brothers” thing is a really, really dumb idea. I mean so mega-dumb it was, as mentioned, the final ridiculous flourish of Austin Powers. How did they look at this and think “yes”? Again it feels like retreading Skyfall ground – this already had given us interesting insights into Bond by having him return to his childhood home. But what did we learn about Bond here? Sweet FA. Whatever iconic status Blofeld had is immediately undermined by making him a pathetic envious child. Christoph Waltz’s bored performance doesn’t help either.

And as the film doesn’t spend any time establishing Blofeld or Spectre doing terrible things, it has to make a series of tenuous connections to Craig’s other films to ludicrously suggest that everything that happened in those films was Blofeld’s evil plan. This is so clearly bollocks, retroactive adaptation that it just makes you snort. Skyfall’s villain was very clearly established as a personally motivated lone-wolf – it makes no sense that he was sent by Blofeld. The first two Craig films established a secretive organisation, but it was framed very much as corporate ruthless villainy – the idea that it was an organisation established to destroy Bond is nonsense.

The reveal that Blofeld wants to destroy Bond personally makes most of the film itself make no sense. If Blofeld wants Bond to come to his base to exact revenge for childhood wrongs, why does his muscle-man Hinx spend the film so aggressively trying to kill him (especially in the film’s stand out action sequence, a no-holds-barred scrap on a train)? It’s almost like they were making it up as they go. Even Quantum of Solace held together better plotwise than this (ironically QoS goes almost completely unmentioned in Blofeld’s evil schemes – probably because it’s a bad film). The final confrontation between Bond and Blofeld strains credulity and patience – reaching for a personal rivalry that hasn’t been established by anything other than fans’ vague memories of watching You Only Live Twice on a Sunday afternoon years ago.

I’ve not mentioned the Bond girls either. The film tries to make a “strong female character” in Léa Seydoux’s Madeline Swann, but she is a plot device rather than a character, with no consistent personality, solely there to be whatever the plot requires. When it needs her to be a gun-toting, self-reliant, go-getter who sasses Bond, she is. When it needs her to be a damsel in distress she forgets all that firearms stuff and waits for a man to save her. When the plot needs her to express total devotion for Bond she does. When it needs her shortly afterwards to leave him, guess what, she does that as well. She is a character who makes no sense at all. It doesn’t help that she looks way too young for Craig. The wonderful Monica Belluci is given a thankless role of informant and brief sex partner for Bond – she of course was far too close to Craig’s age to be the main Bond girl. Just as he did with the shower sex scene in Skyfall, Craig manages to make this seduction seem inappropriate and pervy – it’s not his strength.

Lea Seydoux. She is, by the way, 17 years younger than Daniel Craig. Just saying.

 The stupidly unclear, dully predictable “Nine Eyes” plot doesn’t make things any better either. One of Skyfall’s neatest tricks was to cleverly mislead us about Ralph Fiennes’ Gareth Mallory, setting him up as an antagonist to slowly reveal him as an ally. This film attempts an inverted version of this trick with Andrew Scott’s Max Denbigh. Problem is, Scott is at his most softly-spoken Moriarty sinister – you are in no doubt he’s a wrong ‘un from the first frame. What would have worked is making Denbigh Bond’s ally. This would make the reveal of his villainy at least a surprise for some people in the audience. As it is the whole reveal is no shock what-so-ever. The whole plot starts to feel like plates being spun in the air, a way to give Fiennes, Kinnear and Harris something to do on the margins of the film.

I mean – he just LOOKS like a villain doesn’t he?

Okay Spectre is well filmed. It’s got some good scenes. Ben Whishaw continues to be excellent as Q – and gets loads to do here which is great. Craig actually does some of the comedy with charm and skill – even if he hardly seems as engaged with the material here as he did before, as if he was already becoming tired of the whole enterprise. But it’s too long (over 2 and a half hours!), and straight from its pretentious “The Dead Are Alive Again” opening, it’s straining for a thematic depth and richness that it constantly misses. It makes nothing of its family feud plotline and we learn very little about Bond as a character at all. It mistakes stupid fan-service and pointless reveals for plot, and it builds itself towards a reveal that it expects to get a cheer from the audience, but has no real connection to the plot of the film we are watching, and is in no way earned by the events of the film. 

Spectre is, at best, in the middle rank of Bond films – too self-important, incoherent and (whisper it) a little dull in places to really work. It’s not a complete failure – but it is a major disappointment. There is enough here to entertain most of the time, but not enough to really engage the mind or the guts. For Sam Mendes, lightening didn’t strike twice.