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Film Studies: `The Matrix': great if it lasted only 10 minutes

I know my limits - if not as well as readers have learnt them. So I knew I could not see The Matrix, which has just opened in America, on my own. More than likely, I would fall asleep and be stoned for snoring through the one dialogue scene the picture might yield to. It was essential that I go with a nine-year-old who would spill cherry Coke on me to keep me awake and school me in the rollercoaster rhythms.

Luckily, I have access to such a being. He calls me Dad. And so we set out to the low-price twilight screening of The Matrix, congratulating ourselves on knowing absolutely nothing about the film to come - except that it had taken in a record $37m in the five days of the long Easter break.

"I like not knowing the story," said my son as he got his drink, and I agreed, for it is a curse of the film critic's life to know too much in advance. You want to be surprised.

Well, we saw The Matrix, and still don't know what it's about. Those readers who are wary that I may give away an ending can be reassured. The film ended; at least, it stopped. The lights came on and the patrons trooped out. But I saw nothing remotely resembling an ending - in the sense of a conclusion or a resolution - that could be given away.

Even my nine-year-old consented to this estimate of things. When we got home for dinner, the rest of the family wanted to know what it was about, and I deferred to my son, just to test him. Truth is, it's about Keanu Reeves, special effects and fighting, and that apparently is enough. My son and I conferred. We even looked up a couple of reviews - artful, devious pieces full of stuff like: "A hipness that's rare and welcome," or "The ultimate in cyberescapism."

None of that windy phrase-making for us. As far as we could tell, there are two levels of reality in the film, neither of which bears on anything you or I might recognise as reality. One of them is called The Matrix. We don't know which. The heavy inference of the film's sentiments is that one of these levels is more virtuous than and preferable to the other. But we don't know which, or why. And we don't care. Keanu Reeves is some kind of hacker dude - though it's more important that he wears a black overcoat and black boots that are the utmost and which go with his terrific martial arts attitudes whenever he's spoken to harshly. He is transing from one level to the other, pursued by three unpleasant guys in black suits and shades. They are like FBI men or robots, very mean, with no respect for Keanu's cool gear.

Keanu has allies - Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano. Which reminds me that The Matrix is directed by the Wachowski Brothers (Larry and Andy) - because Pantoliano was memorable as the scumbag husband in Bound (their last picture), in which Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly conned Pantoliano and his Mob associates, walked off with a suitcase of money and had terrific sex together in an arty half-light that was quite enough to discern terrific from tame. Now, there we had a story, and characters - up to a point - and an ending you could fall off.

Andy and Larry, however, have clearly outgrown such drab amusements. There are no characters, now; there is no story. There is just Keanu in mortal combat with the three men in black. These three are extremely difficult to destroy - which allows for a lot of ingenious personal hostility, as in the Tom and Jerry cartoons of yesteryear when Tom the cat was always getting exploded, electrocuted, smithereened, or flattened, only to be feisty, Tom-like and ready for more after every fade-out.

That's OK in a 10-minute cartoon; it's a rule of the game. But in The Matrix, it's worrying that combat looms larger and still we don't grasp the rules. What do you have to do to off these guys? What it comes down to is how fully Keanu believes he is "the one" - a pretty mystical and neat condition that allows him to see bullets coming towards him, hold up his hand, and have them hesitate in mid-air so he can look them over as if they were cufflinks in a jeweller's drawer. Not that Keanu wears anything so jaded it would need cufflinks. He prefers skin-tight black mesh, boots, belts and shades. I heard someone coming out of the picture calling the clothes "the acceptable face of fascism - small f".

As for Keanu, he looks better than ever, and he has been asked to play it all semi-automatic. That's kinder to him, because the stress of thought has in the past detracted from his image and his purity. There's a blank conviction now, and you can see how like Rudolph Valentino he looks. Some of the special effects are pretty and cute, and if it was just 10 minutes The Matrix would be drop-dead. In fact, it runs two hours and - as and when it reaches Britain - it may be one of the great American hits of all time. It's over when it stops, like this column.

"Well," sighed my son, with the best will in the world, "I expect by the time they do the sequel they'll have worked it out."