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Nashville Scene Hacking and Whacking

Sci-fi meets kung fu in the paranoid underworld of "The Matrix"

By Jim Ridley, Donna Bowman, and Noel Murray

APRIL 5, 1999:  In the future, assassins will have the power to rotate in midair, like jitterbuggers in a Gap commercial, and the fate of the world will rest on Keanu Reeves' brainpower. That's what passes for good news in the dystopian nightmare of The Matrix. The bad news is that computers rule, reality is a bit-mapped joke, we're all pod people--and we like it that way. The Matrix is as gloomy and oppressive in its look (and outlook) as current sci-fi demands. But at heart it's a goofy Saturday-morning kung-fu flick, which says more for its take on human identity than its stilted performances and dialogue.

The theme here, as in Total Recall, The X Files, and the recent spate of computer-generated sci-fi thrillers like Dark City, is that there exists a real world and a fake world true, unvarnished existence, and the images downloaded into our noggins by the government, the media, aliens, Microsoft, etc. With the advent of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, it's no longer possible just to distinguish between the two worlds with simple Cartesian logic. I think, therefore I am, goes the basic tenet of existence--but how do I know I'm thinking, and not simply playing some Nintendo cartridge that mimics free will? No wonder The Matrix, like Dark City and the Terminator movies, is filled with distrust of the digital medium, even as it worships shiny new movie technology.

The Matrix takes place, for all we know, in 1999, where a hacker named Neo (Reeves) hooks up with some renegade software traders, including the lithe computer wizard Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). Turns out that Trinity is aligned with the shadowy Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who leads a band of rebels against a big whatsit known as "the Matrix." Morpheus gives Neo the choice between a blue pill and a red pill (the first of many Lewis Carroll gags), promising enlightenment if he takes the right one. Soon Neo is naked, coughing, and sputtering in a murky amniotic bubble, surrounded by millions of other bubbles--and disconnected from the cables that linked him to 1999.

Neo is thus forced to join Morpheus, Trinity, and their bomber-crew buddies in their crusade against the Matrix, a pretty nifty scheme cooked up by evil computers working in concert. Without giving too much away, the battle involves traveling through phone lines into another world--our world--and squaring off against virtual men-in-black agents who resemble a 1978 Stiff Records act. I'm still not sure why this entails extensive martial-arts training for the rebels, other than the rebels look really cool doing it.

But look cool it does. As choreographed by the Chinese wire-fu master Yuen Wo Ping, who gave Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh flight in their Asian star vehicles, the fight scenes create the illusion of a world without gravity: Actors hovering on wires deliver rapid-fire kicks in languid hang time, or sprint horizontally across vertical walls. Since the movie's whole point is that human identity shouldn't be faked, it's nice to see real live people doing stunts that require actual dexterity and ability. When combined with CGI trickery and radical slow-motion camerawork, the effects are often breathtaking--as when the camera shows us not only the trajectory of bullets but also the supersonic warp of Neo's body dodging them.

Unfortunately, as in so many sci-fi thrillers, it's the humans themselves who are lacking. Writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski, the brother team responsible for the sly caper thriller Bound, know how to build an erector set of a script, and their latest--which operates simultaneously on two different worlds in two different centuries--is quite a contraption. (The best idea is a wholly sinister rationale for djˆ vu.) But every time the leads open their mouths, they sound like Jonny Quest's dad. The result is comic-book terseness without comic-book eloquence: blah, portentous dialogue that lies flat without the graphic snap of word balloons.

As the chief baddie, the Australian actor Hugo Weaving makes a comic style of his drab lines, growling threats in an answering-machine monotone. But Laurence Fishburne, a superb actor, is left to mouth Yoda-esque platitudes that would choke David Carradine. (Reeves, whose best line in the movie is "Whoa!," seems right at home.) The rebels have little more personality than the computer-generated constructs; except for the reliably squirrelly character actor Joe Pantoliano, they don't have identities so much as costumes. For all the movie's fear and loathing of a technocratic future, The Matrix is clearly more dazzled by technical possibilities than human beings. Who's a filmmaker going to side with--patsies at the whim of runaway gizmos, or the master manipulator manning the joystick?

Still, when you see the special effects, you'll know why the Wachowskis got carried away. Mechanized giant jellyfish, shrimp-like electronic bugs, spaceships, flying karate masters--if I'd seen this movie when I was 12, the same age I saw Star Wars (which has all the same problems), I'd probably have carried a Morpheus action figure all the way through high school.

I feel a little less indulgent about the gun battles, which ape the balletic climaxes of John Woo's Hong Kong films (like every other action movie coming out of Hollywood today), but without a trace of Woo's moral gravity. Gun worship might not mean anything in cyberspace, where bullets and death are equally weightless, but those of us cocooned in 1999 should worry when audiences are invited, for the second time in as many weeks, to watch a roomful of people killed for empty kicks. Can I deny that Reeves and Moss look cool as hell doing cartwheels with blazing weapons? Nope. If you grew up with video arcades and Chuck Norris matinees, you've been well programmed to accept The Matrix. Resistance is futile.

--Jim Ridley

Kisses for Barrymore

Drew Barrymore has finally found her muse. After becoming a child star practically at birth, sliding into various addictions before puberty, and making her first comeback in her teenage years, Barrymore has been typecast as a young romantic lead. She's played an object of passion in Mad Love, The Wedding Singer, Home Fries, and Ever After, but in each case she's been uninspiring at best, dull and affected at worst. How could an actor with her pedigree, raised in the footlights, fail to display the smallest spark of charisma?

Never Been Kissed is the answer to the Barrymore conundrum: She's a comedienne, not a love interest. In the role of Josie Geller, a former ugly geek who gets another shot at high school, Barrymore blossoms. She's magnetic, funny, touching, and real. The movie around her lets her down, especially in its idiotically crowded and contrived third act, but the actress herself has made a clear breakthrough.

Never Been Kissed indulges the fantasy that if we relived our formative years, we might reverse all the decisions that now make us cringe and wind up with a few decent pictures in our high-school yearbooks. Josie, an anal-retentive copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, gets her chance when she's tapped to go undercover to find the stories lurking in the city's high schools. But once a geek, always a geek: The only group willing to befriend her is the math team, led by Leelee Sobieski from A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. When her boss (John C. Reilly) demands that she infiltrate the popular clique, brother Rob (David Arquette) also reenters high school to revive his baseball career and spread the word that Josie is actually a cool chick.

Anyone who's ever seen a teen movie, or even the trailer to this one, can fill in the rest: what happens to Josie's geek friends when she moves up the social ladder, how Josie discovers that popularity isn't all it's cracked up to be, how Rob learns to temper his dreams to reality. Director Raja Gosnell and writers Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein add a love interest--a colorless English teacher who goes through the whole meets-loses-regains cycle for no other reason than to facilitate a cinematic finale. To top it all off, Josie gets a miniature camera pin to wear to school, so that Gosnell can cut to the Sun-Times staff watching her struggles. This audience-within-the-film is getting to be a tiresome trope (The Truman Show, EDtv), and here it's useless except to provide cues for the audience to laugh or emote.

But Barrymore finds the homely, rejected girl within and pours her into the character of Josie. She doesn't mind putting beauty aside, falling down, or looking foolish to get a laugh. And for the first time since E.T., she's lovable. She never won our hearts by acting desirable, but she has us wrapped around her finger the first time she stutters in Never Been Kissed. Despite its many flaws, the film deserves success if only to encourage Barrymore to take more roles like Josie.

--Donna Bowman

Clod squad

When I have nightmares, they're usually boring, not horrifying. I get stuck in a dream where nothing happens, and when I wake up (about every half-hour), the scenario restarts and plays all over again. In other words, my nightmares are not unlike the experience of watching The Mod Squad. How to explain this movie? I can only guess that the producers had the rights to the old '60s TV show about counterculture cops, and they had hot young actors Giovanni Ribisi, Omar Epps, and Clare Danes to update '60s icons Pete, Linc, and Julie. What they didn't have was a script.

So director Scott Silver lets his actors do what they want--Ribisi walks with a limp and laughs like a moron, consummate actress Danes deals with a heavy past as a runaway drug addict, and villain Michael Lerner dances with Epps. Meanwhile, there's supposed to be some kind of plot about corrupt cops and a big drug deal and a prostitution ring. Whenever the film hits a wall, our heroes turn a corner and accidentally run into the bad guys, who conveniently explain what's going to happen next. In one riotously ridiculous scene, Ribisi captures the evil scheme on tape, and when he listens to the playback, it's like eavesdropping on the screenwriters' story conference.

At the end of the film, the three principals gather on a pier to decide whether to continue as undercover cops. They all shrug. "Yeah," Epps says, "I guess so." That kind of burning commitment shows in every frame of The Mod Squad.

--Noel Murray

Ill wind

The hit movie Forces of Nature is hardly a force to be reckoned with. Ben Affleck plays a man who gets waylaid on the way to his wedding and ends up sharing planes, trains, and automobiles with the free-spirited Sandra Bullock. It's It Happened One Night updated for the umpteenth time, with doses of mushy-headed pop culture philosophy (carpe diem, dude) and a female lead who can't be bothered to brush her hair or dress well.

Director Bronwen Hughes does some nice things with weather (slow-motion storms constantly surround our protagonists), but she's a child of the Nevermind '90s--too cool to juice up the film with burning passion or sparkling wit. Her leads pick up on this tentativeness and scale back their performances accordingly. So far in his fledgling career, Affleck has been better in supporting roles where he can sparkle for five minutes than leads where he does a dull burn for two hours.

The film's "surprise" ending feels like what it is--a plot twist--instead of the homage to old-fashioned romance that it was supposed to be. When a filmmaker revives a creaky genre like screwball romantic comedy, we expect her to use the clichs and conventions as the foundation for something a little more exciting. Hughes is content with just showing us she knows what those conventions are.

--Noel Murray

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