True Crime
Produced by Malpaso Productions
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by Andrew Klavan and Larry Gross
Released by Warner Bros.

The Matrix
Produced by Groucho II Film Partnership
and Silver Pictures
Directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski
Screenplay by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski
Released by Warner Bros.

Clint Eastwood’s True Crime lives up to its name: It is a truly criminal assault on our credulity. With numbing predictability, it recycles the old deathrow execution-eve story.

The condemned man is Frank Beachum, the quintessential victim, an innocent black man in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is played by Isaiah Washington with a studied, almost airless nobility that is, amazingly, one of the few convincing touches in this otherwise preposterous film.

Beachum has been fingered by a mealy-mouthed white accountant—nicely played by Michael Jeter—who stumbled upon a botched hold-up and saw what his racist mind wanted to believe. Need I add that Beachum is a solid family man with a devoted wife and darling daughter?

Enter our hero: Clint Eastwood as Steve Everett, recovering alcoholic, inveterate womanizer, and unrepentant smoker. He is feckless and reckless, but he has got this “nose for truth.” No, I am not kidding; it is in the script. The moment he meets Beachum, he knows he is talking to a saint in prison clothes. Of course, his intuition is given a boost by the presence of Beachum’s wife and five-year-old daughter. They just happen to be in the cell taking tearful leave of the long-suffering victim when Everett arrives. Still, he has got to make sure. Eastwood squints at Beachum and raspingly echoes one of his Dirty Harry signature lines: “So I gotta ask you, did ya kill that woman or didn’t ya?” To borrow Oscar Wilde’s observation on the death of Little Nell, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at such flummery.

Despite a shamelessly hackneyed script and artless direction, I am happy to report this film nevertheless does have something to say. No, not about capital punishment or racism; these issues merely serve as window-dressing to frame its two really important messages. First, Clint remains indomitably virile at 68; and, second, smoking cigarettes is an act of principled defiance against a world of spineless conformity.

We first see Clint at a bar nearly convincing a 23-year-old beauty to share her bed with him for the night. When she turns him down ever so reluctantly, he resorts to bed B. In the next scene, we find him postcoitally naked with his obviously satisfied 30-ish mistress. (Ah, if that 23- year-old only knew what she had missed!) Now, there is no doubt Clint’s torso looks good . . . good, that is, for a man doddering toward 70. His pecs do not sag nearly as much as most geezers’, nor are his biceps as flaccid. A geriatrician would no doubt find this impressive. But the rest of us? Even Cary Grant knew enough to keep his shirt on once gravity got to him.

Eastwood also seems to be bedding down with the tobacco industry. Why else would all the appealing characters smoke while the uptight fussbudgets and hypocrites strenuously refrain? Clint puffs away in defiance of his newsroom’s smoke-free policy and its enforcer, a fumeless Denis Leary, the same guy he is cuckolding. I’ve grown weary of film plots tailored to accommodate close-ups of big-name actors savoring Marlboros. These are men whose evident fitness bespeaks numerous hours in the g)’m. Of the smokers you know, how many retain personal trainers and jog 30 minutes a day?

Well, honesty has a short shelf-life in Hollywood. And this brings me to the prison chaplain, played smarmily by Michael McKean. We first meet this Roman Catholic priest in the men’s room, where he is checking his lightly dyed coiffure, his teeth, and his practiced smile. He is preparing to visit Beachum and obviously hopes to score a little death-row repentance to advance his career. Even when Beachum angrily tells him that he would prefer to wait for a minister from his own church, this unctuous, self-serving cleric will not let up.

Now, I have known many priests. Their ranks undoubtedly harbor a percentage of the vain and self-involved. But I strongly suspect that this portion is not rushing to sign up for death-row duty; it’s simply not the preferred path to ecclesiastical advancement. Furthermore, seminaries today exhort their young men not to interfere in ministries other than their own. News flash to Hollandywood: The Spanish Inquisition closed shop some time ago. What is it with film writers? Are they tendentious or merely ignorant? In any event. True Crime makes Angels with Dirty Faces look like the gold standard of gritty realism.

Have you ever suspected that what we call reality is an elaborately contrived fiction or, as a character in The Matrix puts it, a “world pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth?” A needless question. Of course you have; otherwise, you would not be reading this magazine. It is this suspicion that the Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry, explore with luminous imagination in their second film.

The Matrix is an intriguing live-action comic book with big ideas on its mind. It shimmers with an undergraduate sophistication that seems primed by a perusal of George Berkeley’s philosophy. Where does the mental world end and external reality begin? If no one is there to listen, is there a thud in the forest when the tree keels over? More to the point, if esse est percipi, is there a forest at all? Is it true that nothing exists unless perception makes it so?

Of course, in Berkeley’s vision, reality is underwritten by a Benevolent Perceiver whose eternal vigilance props up the solid world around us. Such benevolence, however, is unavailable in The Matrix. Here, the ultimate perceiver is a consortium of computers, and the)’ are definitely not our friends. The year is 2199, and the computers have been in charge for nearly two centuries. Human beings are stored in womblike pods, their minds plugged into a virtual reality that mimics the world of 1999 in every last detail. It seems the machines need to keep us around so they can harvest the electric energy in our bodies. We have become their batteries. (Don’t ask; it is science fiction.) In a particularly chilling scene, a pink-skinned infant is tucked into the metal womb of a machine that looks like an especially repellent arthropod. No doubt the child will serve to power up a chip or two.

But all is not lost. A remnant of the race has escaped The Matrix, led (appropriately enough) by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne, who plays his role with sly good humor). He is accompanied by Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss with little more than an astonishingly lithe body and a beautifully determined face, which in her case is quite enough. They are on a quest. At some unspecified time in the past, a man escaped the techno-dream and began to wake his fellows to their plight. Although he died, he promised to return. Morpheus thinks he has found the second coming of this savior in, heaven help us, Keanu Reeves, who plays a programmer known as Neo. (Names are not the film’s subtlest point.) Other than occasionally selling contraband computer programs, Neo is a conventional young man. Still, he is vaguely uneasy. Why? He does not know. Morpheus must tell him. “You felt all your life that there’s something wrong with the world. All your life, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.” I don’t know about you, but I can identify with this.

Reeves invests his character with a look of stunned incomprehension that is just right for the first two-thirds of the film. Unfortunately, the look does not leave him when, in the last reels, he is supposed to step heroically up to the plate. By this time, however, the film’s allegory has taken a back seat to its special effects, and acting is not all that essential. For reasons known only to the Wachowskis, our savior of the 22nd century must be able to walk on ceilings, leap across rooftops, literally dodge bullets, and engage in aerial kung-fu battles of wall-smashing fury. Well, why not? Didn’t Edmund Spenser dress the Red Cross Knight, his allegorical savior, in armor and give him a dragon to battle in The Faerie Queene? And didn’t Ian Fleming steal this conceit from Spenser when he had James Bond redeem himself by vanquishing the reptilian Blofeld in You Only Live Twice? (The book, not the movie, of course.) Whether on the page or on the screen, such stunts are part of a long and entertaining tradition. They do hold the attention, especially of the young. And when all is slammed and smashed, when the battle’s dust has settled, we may finally get the point.

There is one special effect I particularly liked. Some scenes are set against a brilliantly blank screen in which the actors move as though suspended in undefined, illimitable white space. No floors, walls, or ceilings. “This is the construct,” Morpheus explains. It is a programming platform on which various “realities” can be projected, a sort of epistemological blank slate that would doubtlessly appeal to Bishop Berkeley. We see various locales projected onto it—a city street in 1999, a nuclear-scorched Earth from 2199, a kung-fu gymnasium. I was reminded of a similar sequence in Sherlock jr. (1924), in which Buster Keaton dreams he is stepping into a movie only to find himself buffeted about under the blows of a lightning montage. He finds himself first in front of a mansion, then in a lion cage, next at the North Pole, then in a desert, and so on. Keaton loved to play with the medium, and so do the Wachowskis. They find delight in all its potential, not just in special effects.

There is a beautiful scene near the beginning when Neo is about to discover the truth about his life. He finds himself in a dark warehouse district, looking through an arched overpass from which rainwater cascades onto the pavement below. While he stands in deep shadow on the left of the screen, the stone arch is bathed in brilliant, watery light on the right. The shot visually beckons him to his rebirth.

The Wachowskis remember what so many other filmmakers have forgotten: Special effects are not enough. As their narrative hopscotches from one illusion to the next, it pauses time and again for moments like these. There is another one midway through the movie, when Neo visits the tenement apartment of a middle-aged black woman (Gloria Foster, in a perfectly understated turn). Her hair is arranged in a 40’s marcel, and she is busy baking oatmeal cookies in her cluttered kitchen. There is a small radio perched on top of her stained refrigerator, and we can hear Ella Fitzgerald softly singing “I’m beginning to see the light.” It is meant to be an analog to the arch scene.

This is a pivotal moment, so I will not say any more. I only mention it to suggest the cleverness of this sleek studio confection. The Wachowskis know that any self-respecting fantasy must have at least a toehold in the real world. In fact, they have much more. A visual imagination like theirs could very well establish a genuine foothold in our popular culture.

A word of reservation. The Matrix is the Wachowskis’ second film. I have watched their first, Bound (1996), on videotape. It is a cleverly plotted, beautifully photographed, but finally repellent film about lesbians outwitting the Mafia. It includes scenes of unusually graphic torture and—dare I say it in The Matrix of 1999?—sexual grappling of a glaringly gratuitous nature. I confess I am puzzled that the brothers could be the authors of both works. But then, they are only in their early 30’s. Excess can be forgiven in the young.