It’s been 18 years since the last “Matrix” movie, so the fourth installment in the sci-fi action franchise tries very hard to remind everybody in the blockbuster community that, hey, it’s the film series with whiz-bang “bullet time” gunfights, gravity-defying kung fu, and Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss as mankind-saving lovebirds in black leather dusters and sunglasses. Directed by original filmmaker Lana Wachowski, “Resurrections” (★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters and streaming on HBO Max Wednesday) is very earnest, slightly nonsensical and rather romantic, though underwhelms when compared to the 1999 film that became a pop-culture classic.
Reeves returns as Neo, the hacker known as “The One” who learns in the original trilogy that his “reality” is actually a simulation created by machines in a dystopian future where people are essentially used as batteries. And last time we saw him, our hero sacrificed himself to save the world.
The opening of “Resurrections” brings back Reeves in an extremely meta fashion. Thomas Anderson is the award-winning creator of the popular “Matrix” video games but also a very troubled dude living in San Francisco. He’s not pleased he’s assigned to do another “Matrix” game, but more importantly, he doesn’t remember his past as Neo. When he meets old flame Trinity (Moss) – now Tiffany, who has a husband and kids – in a coffee shop, neither of them recognize each other.
The Matrix is still a thing, though, and it’s been upgraded. A new human freedom fighter named Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and a revamped Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II instead of OG star Laurence Fishburne) find and reintroduce this older Neo to the familiar predicament, though instead of the larger stakes of the first films, this time Neo’s main mission is to free his great love Trinity from a captive state.
While “Resurrections” is maybe not the best starting point for a “Matrix” neophyte, key moments from the original film are replayed here. The scene of Morpheus 2.0 having Neo choose between a red pill (for the truth) or a blue pill (for the charade) features a clip of the same bit in the 1999 movie playing in the background, a reminder that it was cooler the first time.
Reeves returns with added anxiety and aged gravitas layered onto Neo’s zen-ness. He’s still fun to watch with Moss, whose Trinity really sparkles here once she gets the spotlight. Fishburne’s absence is notable, though: Abdul-Mateen gives Morpheus a lot of style and is in some ways a different take, but he’s such a great actor that originating a character would have been a better fit for him. That definitely works for Henwick, the film’s secret weapon: Changing up the usual black-on-black “Matrix” color palette with blue hair, Bugs is a kind of parkouring warrior we haven’t seen before, part of a precocious generation raised on the legend of Neo.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas plays the wise Sati, a grown-up version of a little girl who appeared in 2003’s “Revolutions,” and Jonathan Groff winningly reimagines Hugo Weaving’s villainous Agent Smith as a smarmy tech dudebro. After the rocky start and a dip into the mythology that waylaid “Reloaded” and especially “Revolutions,” Groff and Neil Patrick Harris (as The Analyst, Neo’s therapist) ignite a really interesting and explosive “Resurrections” third act.
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“The Matrix” was renowned for its action, although the new film arrives to find a much higher bar, thanks to “John Wick,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and many superhero movies. The martial-arts melees and firefights are just OK until the big finale when Wachowski lets loose and gets creative. But “Resurrections” overall tends toward the philosophical, focusing on legacy and emotion where the original trilogy emphasized free will versus destiny.
The new “Matrix” tries to reprogram a beloved piece of cinema. However, it’s quite a few fixes short of a full upgrade.