“Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia.”
This is a piece of advice Morpheus gives Neo in the latest Matrix installment, and over the decades, Hollywood has certainly taken that truism to heart. This week saw no fewer than three franchise continuations – The Matrix Resurrections, Sing 2, and The King's Man (a prequel to the Kingsmen series) – debut on the same day. And while the films vary in quality between utterly delightful and mostly terrible, all three at least offer pleasures of the familiar: soothing presences, and recognizable flourishes, for anxious times.
THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS
One of the perks to reviewing sequels to widely popular movies is that, generally speaking, you don't have to spend an inordinate amount of time describing their storylines. (I know, I know: This from the guy who just devoted 2,000 words to Spider Man: No Way Home.) But in the case of The Matrix Resurrections, I couldn't go into depth about the narrative – not assured depth, at any rate – even if I wanted to. On a scene by scene basis, writer/director Lana Wachowski's science-fiction mind-bender is easy enough to comprehend. I say that, however, knowing in my gut that some ambitious grad student has already started an epic thesis project on the movie's relation to 1999's original and 2003's pair of followups, and that attempting to convey exactly what happens and why will make me look stupider about this cinematic red pill/blue pill mythology than I already am.
So let's keep this super-simple. Keanu Reeves' Thomas “Neo” Anderson is back, and so is Carrie-Anne Moss' Trinity, who, here, also goes by the name Tiffany. (Their returns might surprise those of you who remember the pair dying 18 years ago in The Matrix Revolutions, but just go with it.) Morpheus and Agent Smith are back, too, but with these former roles for Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving now assumed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jonathan Groff. There's a lot of chatter about the idealized fantasy of the Matrix world versus the grimy grandeur of the fully conscious world, and about free will versus destiny, and et cetera et cetera and so forth. There are also, naturally, loads of stunts, chases, battle sequences, plot and character reversals, and figures literally bending over backward to dodge approaching bullets. (Every time someone in Resurrections made a point of saying “Bullet time!”, I swear I heard the phrase followed by MC Hammer backbeats.) It's all as Matrix-y as a super-fan – I'm not one of them – could want. It's also one of the most purely meta blockbuster-franchise entries since 1994's Wes Craven's New Nightmare, the one in which Freddy Krueger decided to terrorize not a teen played by Heather Langenkamp, but Heather Langenkamp herself.
We've been trained to fear the malevolent, theoretically omnipotent forces in the Matrix outings. Really, though, I've become far more afraid of Warner Bros., the corporate monolith that, in recent years, has rather nakedly become a frighteningly self-serving overlord of its own. In 2018, the studio released Spielberg's Ready Player One, a sci-fi adventure that nodded to numerous works in the Warner Bros. canon and spent a good 15 minutes in the Overlook Hotel from its intellectual property The Shining. Just over five months ago, we were subjected to Space Jam: A New Legacy, much of which unfolded in the Warner Bros. “server-verse” that kept reminding us that, without the studio to thank, we wouldn't currently have Game of Thrones and the Harry Potter flicks and the DC-superhero brigade. In Resurrections, the entire plot appears to stem from Warner Bros. demanding that Reeves' computer whiz craft a sequel to the company's Matrix video-game trilogy. It's not the series that's crawled up its own ass – it's the series' financiers. Who cares if Neo and Trinity previously died, or if Fishburne and Weaving weren't available (or invited)? There's franchise dough to be made! Just explain the changes with some incomprehensible scientific/metaphysical gobbledygook and move on! Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia, dammit!
Its wholly and depressingly mercenary nature aside, I had a pretty decent time at Wachowski's and co-scribes David Mitchell's and Aleksander Hemon's film – the first one Lana has written and directed not in collaboration with her sister Lilly. And while the movie is also in current release at the cineplex, I'd certainly recommend catching it, instead, during its simultaneous streaming on HBO Max, where you have the option of rewinding story points that, in the rush of floridly designed images and techno-babble, may have initially sailed clear over your head. (In my case, rewinding was the only way I learned that Jada Pinkett-Smith was playing a 60-years-older version of her Reloaded/Revolutions character Niobe – someone I'd long forgotten about – and not the memorable Oracle previously portrayed by Gloria Foster and Mary Alice.)
Although I was mildly disappointed not to hear him utter his signature catchphrase “Whoa,” though it's possible I missed it while my brain was attempting to decipher information, Reeves is as enjoyable in the role as he's ever been, and it's an immense pleasure seeing him re-teamed with Moss. These beautifully paired actors actually convince you that something is at stake in this largely meaningless series-extender. I absolutely could have done without the addition of Neill Patrick Harris, who gives an irritatingly mannered and one-dimensional performance, but was impressed by the commanding Abdul-Mateen and sinister Groff, and also quite liked series newcomers Jessica Henwick and Toby Onwumere. The liquid-mirror effects are again fun; the slow-motion isn't distractingly over-employed; there's a phenomenally disturbing and grossly funny sequence with apartment-complex residents leaping out of their windows to act as human bullets and promptly splattering on the street.
And I must say that I appreciated the very frequent flashbacks to the first three Matrix films, which made me feel far less guilty about not re-watching them in advance of Wachwski's new offering. (Depending on your personal RAM for this material, you can get up-to-speed in no time.) Massively produced and modestly winning, The Matrix Resurrections is also deeply unnecessary yet unexpectedly charming, and should ensure that the red pill/blue pill debate continues at least until we enter these particular realms again. Gotta say, though: I'm still leaning toward the latter. A faux world in which Christina Ricci gets a solo title card for appearing on-screen for fewer than 30 seconds is a world I'm content to live in.
As must happen (and as did happen in the trailers), Jefferson Airplane's hypnotic “White Rabbit” is heard in Matrix Resurrections, and as you may recall, “Follow the white rabbit” was an instruction given to Neo way back in 1999. It's all very Lewis Carroll. But I'm not sure I dug those shout-outs more than I enjoyed watching actual scenes from Alice in Wonderland staged in the opening minutes of Sing 2, when our computer-animated animal heroes produced a local-theatre take on Carroll's storybook classic while belting out a rendition of “Let's Go Crazy.” I think we can agree that this is probably the first and last time you'll ever experience Prince's dance anthem performed by Tori Kelly, Taron Egerton, Reese Witherspoon, and Nick Kroll. It's also a jazzy re-introduction to writer/director Garth Jennings' show-biz wannabes, whose new film is understandably less inventive, but decidedly more satisfying, than its 2016 predecessor.
Admittedly, I wasn't a big fan of the first Sing, a sharply animated yet pleasant-at-best release from Universal's Illumination studio that was borderline-nonsensical even for a movie in which Witherspoon and Kroll covered Taylor Swift and a sheep voiced by Jennifer Saunders crooned with the pipes of Jennifer Hudson. But sometimes, maybe absence does make the heart grow fonder, because I had a terrific time at this followup that finds its hoofed and hairy heroes bringing their act – more specifically, an elaborate sci-fi musical titled Out of This World – to a makeshift Las Vegas. (I think I enjoyed Jennings' film more than the seven-year-old who graciously accompanied me; she appeared to be fighting sleep during the musical finale that had me fighting back tears.) Like the original, and despite the goofy gags and characterizations, this Sing is almost more of a drama than a comedy – or rather, it's a kid-friendly work that doesn't shy away from seriousness, pathos, and quiet in pursuit of endless laughs. While that may not be what younger demographics necessarily want, this 53-year-old appreciated the legitimately touching exchanges for Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson, and Bono, and the climax that found those latter two voices harmonizing on “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For” made this lifelong U2 admirer almost deliriously happy.
But fear not, slapstick lovers: Jennings and company haven't completely abandoned you. There's also an egomaniacal blond yak voiced by Eric André, and that elderly iguana's glass eye pops out again (it's replaced by an apple), and we're given some visual and aural humor involving mops that's like a miniaturized version of Sideshow Bob's Simpsons bit in which he kept stepping on rakes. I was slightly disappointed that the ending didn't serve up the moral I expected or hoped for; as opposed to “Cherish being a big fish in a small puddle,” the life lesson here appears to be “Find a bigger puddle and you'll fill it.” (This is what two decades of American Idol has led to.) But boasting additional numbers for Pharrell Williams and Billie Eilish and original recordings by Elton John and Halsey, this film is still a considerable joy. It may not be West Side Story or Encanto or In the Heights, but it's certainly on a par with Netflix's tick … tick … Boom! and Apple+'s Come from Away, and considerably better than Dear Evan Hansen and that Prime Video Cinderella … . Sheesh, we movie-musical fans were spoiled this year! And Cyrano with Peter Dinklage is right around the corner. Dinklage might not be in Sing 2, but yes: He sings, too.
THE KING'S MAN
You can't call it an entirely successful rescue, given that his movie is still incoherently plotted and its tone so unsteady that every other sequence suggests craft services randomly slipping peyote onto the snack table. But as the originator of a British-spy outfit dedicated to global protection, Ralph Fiennes performs heroic work in writer/director Matthew Vaughn's The King's Man, a prequel that involves Grigori Rasputin, Mata Hari, and a one-minute role for Stanley Tucci and still manages to be almost no fun at all.
Half dreary Masterpiece Theatre costume parade, half über-violent and self-referential spectacle in the vein of Vaughn's Kick-Ass, this viscera-and-hot-tea-soaked World War I fantasy seems intent on consistently, alternately boring half the patrons who might conceivably show up for it. Blandly likable 20-something Harris Dickinson, meanwhile, doesn't exude a tenth of the charisma that Taron Egerton brought to his role in the 2014 and '17 Kingsmen entries. (It may be worth remembering that in that latter offering, Egerton co-starred opposite Elton John, who played himself ... so I suppose we should have seen Rocketman coming.) But Fiennes is more than equal to the predecessors' Colin Firth, and he makes this ridiculous free-for-all – one wisely kept on the shelf since the fall of 2019 – largely work through his natural gravitas, underplayed wit, and obvious enjoyment, as in The Grand Budapest Hotel, of getting to play a dashing lead who drops the occasional “F” bomb. Although The King's Man is a mess, Fiennes at least makes it a moderately bearable mess, and I'm forced to applaud the film for its one considerable narrative shock involving Dickinson, its action climax featuring pissed-off mountain goats, and its balletic nonsense in which Rhys Ifans' sword-carrying Rasputin leaps and pliés about while accompanied by the 1812 Overture. As Tchaikovsky-themed Christmas gifts go, it ain't The Nutcracker, but I'm reasonably sure some nuts do get cracked.