Most people hate The Matrix sequels. How could anything live up to the Wachowski sisters’ 1999 film, one of the most quotable blockbusters of the past 25 years? While the reaction to the first sequel, Reloaded, was initially more positive-to-mixed – Ebert called it “an immensely skillful sci-fi adventure” – in the years since the Matrix trilogy’s conclusion, both Reloaded and Revolutions have soured in the memories of fans. But what if 2003's Reloaded isn’t as terrible as we remember?

That’s the thought I had when I found The Matrix Reloaded on a hotel TV during a recent vacation. At first I grumbled, annoyed there was nothing better on. But rewatching Keanu Reeves’ Neo flex his martial arts skills against Seraph (Collin Chau), I suddenly turned to my friend: “Hold on, this is actually pretty good.” I was immediately sucked back in by Yuen Woo-ping’s tight, hand-to-hand fight choreography, the slow-mo mid-air kicks, and those classic “whoosh” sound effects. I decided to rewatch it again in time for the movie’s 15th anniversary this week, just to ensure it wasn't the mountain air or my non-sober vacation frame of mind that initially swayed me.

Is it an unsung masterpiece? Not exactly. Is it a total wreck of a movie? Also no. The Matrix Reloaded exists somewhere in the middle; a sequel with its share of flaws – a sludge of unfocused philosophical ideas and pretentious dialogue, and an excess of wonky CG – that also holds up as an entertaining action spectacle and an ambitious expansion of The Matrix mythology.

First off, there’s a lot that’s undeniably not good about the movie, so let’s get out of the way: The clunky writing and garrulous dialogue sound like the stoned musings of a science nerd, which only hamper the momentum between set pieces. Lilly and Lana Wachowski's reliance on rubbery CG looked like garbage then and still does now. Besides Jada Pinkett Smith's (underused) Niobe and Harold Perrineau's Link, new characters like the Twins, the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), and Persephone (Monica Belluci) are boring. Then there’s that awful Zion rave sex scene.

Warner Bros.

But watching Reloaded again recently, I took less issue with those criticisms, and embraced the film as an imaginative follow-up that wasn’t afraid to take risks. Reloaded represents the best and worst of the Wachowskis all at once. In Reloaded they turn up the volume from 10 to 100: instead of Neo versus Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), we get Neo versus a hundred Agent Smiths; in place of a helicopter rescue, we get a massive freeway car chase; instead of Neo being the One, he’s just the sixth in a series of anomalies. The Wachowskis pick up their toy box, flip it over, and add about a dozen more insane toys to the mix – it’s no wonder most fans were frustrated when this arrived on the heels of the first film’. It gives us something that looks and tastes like The Matrix, but unravels the original's prophetic Jesus storyline and stretches it into new territory.

Here’s the thing: when you make a movie like The Matrix, you’re never going to recreate that magic a second time. One of the best things about the Wachowskis is that they never tried to. In an alternate universe, we could have gotten a sequel that rehashed the thrills of the first movie. Instead, Reloaded veered off that course to chart a much more complex saga. It scrapped the chosen-one narrative for the surprising, darker revelation that the savior prophecy is all a part of the machines’ design for total control over humankind.It benched Neo in the climax to spotlight Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and it offered us weirder, layered ideas about free will and the trilogy's virtual reality world to chew on. It doesn’t all work, but it’s an admirable example of what happens when imaginative filmmakers don’t stick to an expected formula. And when it comes to minds like the Wachowskis, I’d rather watch an imperfect, wackier follow-up than a derivative sequel that plays it safe.

Warner Bros.

After the Wachowskis unleashed the first Matrix on us, all audiences craved was more; more bullet-time, more Keanu in a trench coat, more Trinity kicking butt, more crazy wire-fu. Reloaded doesn’t waste any time delivering on that, beginning with a killer opening sequence: Trinity drives a Ducati off a rooftop, gracefully back-flipping in mid-air and landing square in front of a massive explosion. She fights off a bevy of agents, then dives backwards out of a skyscraper window while firing a pair of Uzis. It’s got nothing on Trinity’s iconic jump-kick that opened the original movie, but it’s an impressive companion sequence that maintains the directors’ signature kinetic energy.

Neo’s fight against the Merovingian’s henchmen is hands-down the best part of Reloaded. It takes the lobby shootout of the first movie to another extreme, swapping out guns for ancient weapons like decorative swords, tridents, and spiked clubs. It’s also a good-looking sequence to look at. The radiant white decor of the mansion set – a nice visual contrast to Neo’s all-black getup – and the wide-open spaces to play around in, from the balcony to the entryway, mark a deviation from the majority of set pieces across the trilogy, often taking place in tighter corridors shot in darker, gloomier color palettes.

And then there’s the freeway sequence. Bad CGI aside, it’s a high point in the Wachowskis’ filmography. Trinity gets more screen time pulling tricks on a motorcycle, weaving through on-coming traffic with the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), and Morpheus fights off an agent, on top of a moving semi-truck. Even 15 years later, the sequence is a thrill.

The Matrix Reloaded served as a bridge to the much-harder-to-defend Matrix Revolutions, and when we think about Matrix sequels, we collectively lump those two together. Viewed as one whole story, you see filmmakers juggling more story ideas than they could handle. On its own and divorced from the hype, Reloaded showcases a brazen attempt to toss out expectations and craft something different, and you have to admire that.

Today’s sequels and franchises often follow formulas; when you watch a Marvel movie, you usually know what you’re going to get and where it’s headed. But the Wachowskis resisted that with The Matrix sequels. Not all their ideas worked, but The Matrix Reloaded is far more entertaining than its reputation.

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