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'The Matrix': weirdly compelling

Ads are promoting "The Matrix" as a high-energy adventure with a megadose of special effects. Since movies fitting that description aren't hard to find, even fans of the genre may be expecting just another thrill ride. But the picture turns out to have an offbeat quality that should please science-fiction buffs who don't mind its hard-hitting, frequently violent action.

Keanu Reeves plays a computer hacker called Neo who's been scouring cyberspace in search of Morpheus, a techno-guru as mysterious as his name. Morpheus turns out to be a man worth tracking down, since only he understands the truth about the late 20th century.

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Or rather, the truth about the late 21st century, which is the date our calendars would show if evil conspirators didn't have us ensnared in a web of illusion that perpetuates their control by blinding us to reality. That web is called The Matrix, and Neo might be the only person in the universe who can liberate humanity by cracking it open.

"The Matrix" zooms along so quickly that there's no time to ponder the plot. This is fortunate, since the plot is anything but logical, and doesn't build emotional credibility with its skin-deep characters and by-the-numbers dialogue.

What makes the film weirdly compelling is the sheer audacity of its screenplay, which has the courage (or craziness) to rocket into a whole new category each time the story threatens to run down - from science-fiction allegory to sword-and-sorcery fantasy to "new age" parable, with bursts of shoot-em-up gunplay and love-story romanticism tossed in for good measure.

Equally important are the visual effects. They're no match for last year's "Dark City" but pretty impressive at times. Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, as the heroes, give solid genre-film performances.

The picture is written and directed by the Wachowski brothers, and while subtlety has never been their strong point, they know how to fill the screen with eye-dazzling images. "The Matrix" may be too long and convoluted to become a runaway hit, but it should please viewers with a taste for the outlandish.

*Rated R; contains relentless action, much of it violent.

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