Any year that brings with it the certainty of two "Matrix" movies is obviously a jackpot year for action-fantasy fans. And this is already a pretty rich period for these sorts of films. Directors like the Wachowski brothers (the "Matrix" trilogy), Peter Jackson (the tripartite "Lord of the Rings" epic), Sam Raimi ("Spider-Man") and Bryan Singer ("X-Men") — all of them about 40 years old, give or take — grew up in a particularly fruitful time for comics and fantasy fiction, and they obviously respect the wild, multi-marvel conventions of the form. They've brought new heart and spirit to a genre that might otherwise be most notable for the ever-evolving wallop of its slick digital imagery. (Take "Daredevil," if you really want.)
"The Matrix Reloaded" won't open till May 15. (It'll be shown in the six-story-high IMAX format in some cities; the super-eagerly awaited "Enter the Matrix" videogame will be released the same day.) But "X2: X-Men United," which opens this Friday, is more than a stopgap or a simple-minded sequel.(Click for photos from "X2: X-Men United.") It's a movie that persuasively brings to the screen the mind-knotting plot lines, the complexly flawed characters, and much of the sense of everyday wonder that has infused the Marvel comics since the first issue of "X-Men" was published in 1963. (The series is still going, along with several, uh, mutations.)
One of the keys to pulling off a project like the "X-Men" movies is procuring the services of superb actors who feel no temptation to wink at the material, to hoke it up. Ian McKellen, who plays the hard-line mutant supremacist Magneto, is a Shakespearean stage veteran who was nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in the 1998 film "Gods and Monsters." Both Patrick Stewart, who plays the conciliatory, pro-human Professor Charles Xavier, and Alan Cumming, who contributes a touching performance as the sweetly religious Nightcrawler, are alumni of England's Royal Shakespeare Company.
But even the straight-up movie vets in "X2" are very good. Hugh Jackman, as the lonely, ferocious Wolverine, nurses an unrequitable love for the telekinetic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who is, alas, betrothed to the fire-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden). Meanwhile, Bobby Drake, the young Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), is having no end of trouble negotiating so much as a simple teen kiss with Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose slightest touch — hand, lip, whatever — can suck the power out of people. When Bobby asks Wolverine if he knows what it's like to want to be with somebody, but you can't — well, the look in Wolv's eyes is as eloquent an answer as any you're likely to find in fantasy film land.
There are a number of new and newly prominent mutants in "X2": Colossus, Beast, the sullen young Pyro. And there's Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), the sleek, steely, and (there's no getting around this) totally hot henchwoman of the sinister, mutant-hating Stryker (Brian Cox). And Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is back as the blue-skinned, body-suited Mystique, whose job is to ... well, just steaming up any scene is enough, although she does lots more than that.
But the big draw of "X2" — the element that's gonna suck up mutant millions of bucks this weekend — is of course the tech. Do the gadgets glitter and zing? You bet. Is the sound floor-shaking? Uh huh. Do the fights kick butt? Check. Airborne, "Matrix"-style butt? Just about.
"X2" is the latest entry in a comics-fueled film cycle that shows no signs of abating. Coming up soon will be director Ang Lee's "The Hulk" (which already has preview geeks grousing about cheesy big-green-guy effects). A movie version of Marvel's "Fantastic Four" is now in pre-production; Iron Man is said to be headed for the big screen as well; and even the Batman and Superman franchises are apparently back in play.
If all of these projects have their roots in golden-age cartoonery, another of this summer's big fantasy releases actually is a cartoon. Or cartoons. It's "The Animatrix," a collection of nine short "anime"-style films, most of them produced in Japan, that either fill in the backstory or expand upon the themes of the "Matrix" movies. Larry and Andy Wachowski oversaw each of the films, and scripted four of them. "Matrix" stars Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss provide voices in one of them ("Kid's Story" — the protagonist of which also turns up as a character in "The Matrix Reloaded"). And the "Matrix" music team supervised the sound of each story's score, working with contributions by such noted electronicists as DJ Shadow, Photek, Junkie XL and Death in Vegas.
The "Matrix" movies are themselves a sort of live-action incarnation of the Japanese "anime" aesthetic, with its gravity-defying action sequences; "The Animatrix" makes this homage more explicit. The collected films are at the least strikingly inventive. "A Detective Story," for example, by Shinichiro Watanabe ("Cowboy Bebop"), dispenses with bright cartoon color in favor of a raw black-and-white noir style to tell the story of a slouchy P.I. on the trail of warrior girl Trinity. It's cooled-out and memorable.
Some of the other "Animatrix" films are simply spectacular, especially "The Final Flight of the Osiris," which serves as a sort of postlude to the story told in the first "Matrix" movie and a prelude to the events that unfold in the upcoming videogame, which in turn sets up the action in "The Matrix Reloaded." (Click for photos from "The Matrix Reloaded.") (The "Matrix" folks are quick to insist that all three of the movies will stand on their own without reference to the game or "The Animatrix.")
"Osiris" utilizes even more advanced forms of the startling motion-capture techniques used by director Andy Jones in his 2002 film, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within." So eerily realistic are the two blindfolded fencers in this segment, you can almost feel their sweat sprinkling your face. Weird. Creepy, even. But wow.
"Osiris" has been screening as a preview in theatres for several weeks now, and a few other "Animatrix" segments are available for viewing on the "Matrix" Web site (intothematrix.com). The whole collection will be out on DVD and video on June 3.
After that, there'll be an agonizing interlude for "Matrix" fans — five months of Neo-less downtime until the release of the concluding installment of the trilogy, "The Matrix Revolutions," on November 5. Can you weather this drought? Can you wait? No, I didn't think so.