The Matrix is a riddle wrapped inside an enigma, packaged as the wildest, funkiest sci-fi thriller to slink its way onto the big screen since Ridley Scott made a movie about androids. "No one can be told what The Matrix is," goes the publicity blurb. "You have to see it for yourself." If only that were true - it would be so easy to give away the big revelation, coming as it does only half-an-hour in. But, if you're someone who likes to go in cold, then relax - nowhere in this review will you find the answer, because ignorance of such knowledge is sure to guarantee bliss in the multiplex.
So what can we tell you? Well, this is - quite simply - the action movie of the millennium. Twentieth-century entertainment has finally reached its peak: forget the pyrotechnics of ageing, muscle-bound Austrians. Welcome, instead, to the age of gravity-defying, mind-blending action superheroes who can not only offload two machine-pistols while running along a wall, but also dodge bullets, leap from skyscraper to skyscraper and, effectively, punch holes in time.
Writer/director siblings the Wachowskis have gone further with the action genre than you'd have ever thought possible. Their debut, Bound, was a stylish, low-budget heist thriller, which led to inevitable comparisons with the Coens. But if Bound was the Wachowskis' Coen Project, then The Matrix is surely their Jim Cameron Project. They've been given a multi million dollar budget and free reign to indulge their overactive imaginations, and they've obviously made the most of every last cent - the movie's massive Stateside box-office success (it made $22.4 million during the opening weekend) is testament to that.
Each kung fu melee is a masterwork, using smooth slo-mo and seamless freeze-frames to shift between perspectives, then winding up the visual tempo to show all the deadly neck-crunching hand-chops in real-time. Every mega-bodycount shoot-out is executed in a similar fashion, so you can see bullets gliding towards their target, while shell after shell tumbles to the floor in a tinkling cascade of brass. But it takes far more than eye-massaging effects to make action sequences this spectacular; which is why the Wachowskis called in Jet Li's fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping to inject a bit of authenticity. This ain't cartoon violence. It hurts.
But don't go thinking that The Matrix is yet another no-brain action jaunt, because it's as well-plotted as any of the best future-shock head-scratchers, requiring its audience to wrap their minds around some hefty concepts (the nature of reality, the mechanics of destiny). And don't let the Keanu factor put you off either - this is as far from Johnny Mnemonic as an amoeba is from God Himself. Reeves may not be the most expressive actor, but - fair dues - he trimmed down, trained up and even shaved his eyebrows off for this role. Lean, mean and wrapped in black, he looks perfect as Neo.
Laurence Fishburne, meanwhile, fits snugly into the shoes of mentor Morpheus, and Carrie-Anne Moss' Trinity is a lithe, lady-shaped death- machine. Bad Guy honours go to Hugo Weaving, famed for his cross-dressing in Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. It's fun seeing a man who once shook his booty wearing a feather tiara and engaging in a kung-fu showdown with the Speed star.
But the most memorable thing about The Matrix is its visual impact. Imagine a videogame, a pop promo, a summer blockbuster and a philosophy lesson all rolled into one trippy, brain-blowing experience and you've got it. You'll step out of the cinema feeling worryingly immortal, high on the adrenalin that's pushed your head into the clouds. The only problem? Will you feel the same after you've seen The Matrix a second time? Or a third? It's certainly worth buying a few more tickets to find out.
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The Matrix represents no-limits film-making at its finest, and will surely change all the rules of action-movie production. The Wachowskis have crafted an intelligent, ultra-cool futuro-fight fest: Star Wars aside, this is one film 1999 will be remembered for.