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Wednesday, March 31, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Keanu In Wonderland -- `The Matrix' Conjures A Fantastic Mix Of Comedy, Action And Hacker Noir

Special To The Seattle Times

------------ Movie review ------------

XXX 1/2 "The Matrix," with Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss. Written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski. Alderwood, Auburn Cinema 17, Crossroads, East Valley 13, Everett Mall 1-3, Factoria, Gateway, Issaquah 9, Kent 6, Kirkland Parkplace, Mountlake 9, Neptune, Northgate, Redmond Town Centre, Southcenter, South Hill Mall, Woodinville 12. 120 minutes. "R" - Restricted because of violence, profanity and gore.

Extremely violent, extremely preposterous, extremely entertaining, "The Matrix" succeeds at two extremely difficult tasks: as a vast, exciting virtual-reality movie and as a defibrillator for Keanu Reeves' big screen career.

Using the pantheon of movie iconography from the past 100 years - from "High Noon" showdowns, to bad kung fu, to love's first kiss - the writing/directing team of the Wachowski brothers, Larry and Andy, achieves a fantastic, hodgepodge symmetry using hacker noir, comedy and mindless action.

Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is a talented computer programmer at a monolithic corporation during the day, but at night he's an unscrupulous hacker tagged Neo. His work brings him to the attention of Morpheus (Fishburne), a mysterious stranger who tantalizes Neo.

Morpheus compares him to Lewis Carroll's Alice, with talk of other worlds and realities. He offers Neo two pills: a blue one, which will allow things to continue on as they have, and a red one, which purportedly will lift the veil from his eyes and allow him to see "how deep the rabbit hole goes." This being a movie, and since the plot would pretty much stop here if he didn't, Neo takes the red one.

When the veil does lift, it's Kafka meets "Die Hard," and Neo realizes the awful truth that Morpheus has wanted him to see. It's a truth darker than "Dark City," more memorable than "Johnny Mnemonic" and as terminal as "The Terminator." It's bad for him, but it's good for us.

The most critical aspect of this film's success is the creation of the Matrix world, a simulacrum of reality where most of the people in this film work, fight and die. The Wachowskis set up certain rules for this reality and try to stick to them - thus making the realm as important as the "real" world.

Of course, they also have a lot of fun working within their construct. Visitors to the world are faster than the other inhabitants and they can jump incredible distances. But they can still be hurt, even be killed, especially if they are attacked by the officious Matrix agents who prowl the streets.

Reeves, who in the past has been accused of being kind of a virtual-reality effect himself, acquits himself nicely as Neo. The long, lingering stench of "Johnny Mnemonic" dissipates in the first few moments of the film.

Actually, it isn't dissipated, it's blown away with the exhilarating opening fight sequence. It's a desperate chase between Trinity (a Sigourney Weaver career jump-starter role for Carrie-Anne Moss) and the Matrix agents. Giving life to a monotone character, Hugo Weaving brings a repulsed humanity to the main regimented baddie, Agent Smith. Like any great movie villain, he's a worthy opponent.

It's evident that the Wachowski brothers (whose last effort was the erotic cranker "Bound") brought something extra to the table. Someone else's treatment of their script could have turned into a ponderous, gorgeous, somber affair, like "Dark City." In fact, "The Matrix" so closely parallels the story line of "Dark City" that it makes the brothers' contributions stick out like an enormous, sore, virtual-reality thumb.

Most hacker noir films seem to vie for the "Blade Runner" production design award, entirely forgetting their audience and their story. Not the Wachowskis. They're like little kids playing with blocks, building and constructing. Then they use the wow-filled, "Flo-mo" and "bullet time" special effects of Jon Gaeta and the designs of Owen Paterson to knock those blocks down.

And knock they do, demolishing the wall between the standard "question reality" movie and an action film. When the dust settles, "The Matrix" is all that's left standing.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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