The AIs who control the world have decreed the destruction of Zion, the last free human city. As a vast army of Sentinels digs towards Zion, Neo must use his developing powers to help end the war from inside the Matrix. A message from the Oracle leads him towards a meeting with the Architect, whose revelations will change everything. But both sides in the war have reckoned without a wild card, the return of a program that should have been destroyed but has instead gone rogue and started spreading like a virus with only one purpose in mind: the end of everything.
It took four years for the Wachowskis to deliver their sequel to their 1999 paradigm-shifting action classic, The Matrix. As they developed ideas for the project, they realised they couldn't fit them into one movie so split it in two, with the two halves released six months apart. All the cool kids were doing this back in 2003, with Peter Jackson filming his three-part Lord of the Rings adaptation in one block and then releasing the films at one-year intervals. This was a huge success. The Matrix sequels had a rather more mixed reception.
The Matrix Reloaded does do a few very good things. The action scenes are stronger, the actors having trained for far longer and more in-depth for their martial arts scenes. There's far more spectacular stunts (the opening sequence with Trinity single-handedly destroying an office block and then engaging in aerial combat with an Agent remains outstanding), more worldbuilding, huge plot revelations and some clever ideas sprinkled amongst the action, although the philosophising of the first film has mostly fallen by the wayside.
Unfortunately, the film's good elements are dented by the fact that the pacing is poor. The Matrix Reloaded has a fairly simple plot progression: Neo has to meet with the Oracle, strike a deal with the deceitful (and randomly French) Merovingian and then follow a path to meet the Architect, whilst fairly nascent subplots follow a rivalry between Morpheus and Zion's military commander and the gathering of Zion's forces to oppose the machine army. This could easily have been done in under 90 minutes with plenty of time for cool action scenes, but for some reason the Wachowskis decided they had to use every single penny of the budget (twice that of the first film). As a result we get an absolutely absurd fight sequence between Neo and several hundred Agent Smith clones, which the technology is not quite able to deliver: the all-CG scenes between a blatantly fake Keanu Reeves and lots of claymation-looking Hugo Weavings are particularly painful. Even more offensive, because it is simply not important to the plot, is a hallway fight scene between Neo and the Merovingian's mediocre bodyguards which feels like it goes on longer than the Hundred Years' War. There's also a rave/dance party in Zion near the start of the film which feels a bit pointless (although prefiguring the Wachowski's love of showing people having a good time, which would inform their later Netflix project Sense8).
Other action sequences also go on a bit too long, but they are at least a lot more varied and fun: Seraph and Neo's first meeting taking the form of a friendly table-based martial arts battle is as daft as a brush, but so technically impressive that it's less of a problem. The massive battle sequence on the freeway is also a bit bloated, but it has a lot more combatants and is very impressively handled. There's also some nice character beats, such as Morpheus - who's clearly been trained up by Neo and his new powers in the meantime - relishing the chance to go toe-to-toe with an Agent on more event terms.
The film was heavily criticised for the revelatory sequence with Neo and the Architect. Partially I think this was the fault of the extended gap between the films, during which time fans had come up with all sorts of theories on the Internet, some of them fairly compelling. The most constant and pernicious of these was that the "real world" was another level of the Matrix, and a lot of people were unhappy this wasn't the case. Personally I was relieved, because I think the Wachowskis would have lost the mass audience if they'd gone too wankery with the premise (in the event it would be another decade before Christopher Nolan played that card, more or less successfully, with Inception). And as it turns out a lot of the fans were right, the real world situation was another layer of control, just not in the way they were expecting. Still, I think the problem with the scene is, both ergo and concordantly, more in its presentation than the plot revelations it contains.
The film also has another problem: bits of it are missing. The Wachowskis wanted to make The Matrix Reloaded a genuine multimedia experience™, with synergy© between different franchise brand products™. The result is that to get the best out of the movie, you need to have watched the animated short film collection The Animatrix and played the video game Enter the Matrix beforehand. Which obviously about 99.5% of viewers had not done (and, seventeen years after release, doing either is a bit difficult with The Animatrix not being available in all territories and Enter the Matrix not being playable on modern systems, not that you'd want it to be; it's not a good game). As a result, references to the final mission of the Osiris or the Logos crew and Niobe being constantly treated as a big deal when they're missing from most of the film feel a bit weird.
Still, the film does a lot that's right. The Wachowskis realising that they had a gift that would not stop giving in the form of Hugo Weaving and making 1000% use of him in the sequels was a good move. The expansion of the world and the cast is mostly successful and the action sequences and effects are technically impressive, until they become over-egged and self-indulgent.
The Matrix Reloaded (***) is a watchable, sometimes fun but overlong, overwrought and over-budgeted sequel to a great movie. It does a lot that's good and is never less than interesting, but with more judicious editing it could have been sharper, tighter and more compelling. The film is available as part of a box set with its predecessor and sequel in the UK and USA.