Directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski, starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, Monica Bellucci, Gloria Foster, Lambert Wilson, Adrian and Neil Rayment.

One of the most anticipated film release of 2003, 'The Matrix Reloaded' has one hell of a lot to live up to. 1999's 'The Matrix' was hugely influential, its action scenes raising the bar for every film since, with phrases such as 'bullet time' - the 360 degree movement of a camera around slow-motion events - becoming part of film jargon and references and parodies abounding in films from 'Charlie's Angels' to 'Shrek'. Not only was 'The Matrix' an astoundingly accomplished action movie, but writer-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski plundered the tenets of Christianity, Buddhism and Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland' for references and themes, adding dense philosophical layers to what essentially was the simple story of the birth of a hero.

When that film ended, computer hacker Thomas Anderson (Reeves) had unplugged himself from the computer-generated concept of the Matrix and come to accept his new reality as Neo, the prophesied saviour of mankind from a race of enslaving machines. 'Reloaded', the second part of a trilogy which will end with the November release of 'The Matrix Revolutions', reunites Neo with his lover, Trinity (Moss), and Morpheus (Fishburne), commander of the good ship Nebuchadnezzar. Haunted by nightmares foretelling Trinity's violent death, Neo is troubled and uneasy in his new role, still learning the extent of his extraordinary powers.

The subterranean metropolis of Zion, final refuge of all freed humans, is under siege from the spider-like Sentinels of the Machine Army who are just hours from its destruction. Humankind's survival depends on Neo entering the Matrix to find and consult with the Oracle (Foster) and following her frustratingly obscure directions. But he's going to have to fight his way through a range of enemies before reaching the objective of his quest, including a rapidly replicating Agent Smith (Weaving).

The Wachowski brothers have also taken the opportunity to introduce a handful of intriguing new villains including the philosophical Merovingian (Wilson) who is a power broker in the Matrix, his wife, Persephone (a vampiric Bellucci) and his bodyguards, the dreadlocked albino Twins (Adrian and Neil Rayment) who can pass ghost-like through walls and floors.

The mixture of Greek myth, cod-philosophy, jumbled religions and comic-book action that the Wachowskis have cobbled together in 'The Matrix Reloaded' make for a compelling, if not entirely comprehensible story. While Morpheus bore the brunt of the philosophising in the first film, everybody here is preoccupied with choice, free will and musings on the terms of their own existence when all the viewer wants is a little less conversation, a little more action. Too much of the film is set in the grimy surrounds of Zion, a city that looks like it was bolted together out of old submarine parts with a council that may well have been stolen from 'The Phantom Menace'. The citizens don't come across as the brightest either, responding to the news that the city is under threat by having an overblown rave, the camera lingering over their writhing sweaty half-naked bodies or cutting to the writhing sweaty half-naked bodies of Neo and Trinity in, thankfully, the only sex scene of the film.

Although Keanu is at his best when not asked to do too much in the line of acting, he's still an undeniably cool (if mainly expressionless) hero whether garbed in his real world grunge wardrobe of grimy t-shirts, or slick and stylish in the cassock and shades he wears in the Matrix. Moss and Fishburne give solid support but the real stars of 'The Matrix Reloaded' are the effects team - and they don't let you forget it.

The Wachowskis have upped the action this time round, with meticulously choreographed, stylised violence and eye-popping set pieces. While the fight scenes may occasionally drag, the final murderous freeway chase sequence on motorbikes, cars and speeding trucks is a complete adrenaline rush.

'The Matrix Reloaded' has moments of awkwardness but, despite faults, the film is still stylish, glossy (apart from Zion) and cooler than cool. Just don't expect an ending - we'll see you back at the cinema in November.

Caroline Hennessy