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Immortal Combat: The Code (2020)

In many ways, the Cleveland-made indie Immortal Combat feels like a bigger version of what a bunch of little kids might accomplish with a camera, a backyard, a bunch of pretend weapons, and a lively imagination fed from martial arts epics and actions movies of old. There is a certain charm to it, escaping into the pure play of childhood, including wrist devices that are merely tapping your bare wrist, but as an actual movie, it might have some problems. Look, this is a martial arts action movie. You watch a martial arts action movie to be entertained with the feats of action, and that’s what you should be looking for with any movie with “combat” in the title (albeit in a misguided font that looks like a child’s chalk). On that front, Immortal Combat is flawed but still passable entertainment, though it feels like a project that was never intended to entertain more than its own select cast and crew.

Neil (Ben Zgorecki) is a member of the villainous Four 11 gang. He’s tasked with infiltrating the rival Five Elements gang but he turns against his former gang. The Five Elements have come into possession of a code that will save humanity from environmental disasters. The world is running low on breathable air and implantable medical devices are malfunctioning. The gangs are going to war to control this code and thus control the trajectory for mankind’s future.

The performers have physical skills they have honed over years, and director Johnny K. Wu (Innserself) emphasizes angles and cuts to fully appreciate those skills. There are extended shots where you can admire how much the performers practiced and memorized their routines. However, that deference also comes at the expense of the vitality of the action as depicted on screen. Because we’re at a medium range or farther distance, because there are longer takes, we’re watching the actors perform and realizing just how slow everyone is with their pacing. Without quicker cuts, the energy level of these fights comes across as too often lackluster, with many of the fighters just kind of hanging around and treating these battles as less life and death and more like a grocery aisle they cannot commit to. I can appreciate someone doing a fancy spin kick from a technical standpoint, but it feels less impressive when everyone else around them seems gassed or drugged in response. There is a lot of fighting in Immortal Combat but the editing and staging choices make it feel less believable, exciting, and potent. That’s why it feels like a bunch of grown-up kids running around, falling over, and continuing their pretend fighting rather than something, say, along the lines of a John Wick, an action franchise that is built around the appeal of expertly executed fight choreography.

The plot of Immortal Combat, written by Wu, Andras Zoid, and Linda Robertson, ignores the first rule of hidden conspiracies and alternate fantasies, which is to shepherd your audience gradually and not to make assumptions. I see this plenty of times with fantasy films that incorrectly assume an audience has as much understanding as the filmmakers do about the histories of their world, the intricacies, the rules and challenges, etc. A new world, or a conspiracy, needs to be unraveled slowly and in pieces to be accessible, to not overwhelm the audience. We need the right components as if they were building blocks, creating a sturdy foundation to attach new information and new rules and lessons. If you have a mysterious Chosen One, you don’t vomit up every last bit of expositional know-how right away, you have to draw things out at a natural, inclined pace. With Immortal Combat, we have an entry point into this new world through the rather non-intimidating character Neil (a.k.a. “Cloud”). He’s our learning curve. The problem is that Neil just runs with any information at once and this presents a confusing overload. The world of Immortal Combat resembles ours except there are martial arts gangs, some of them with elemental powers, or at least names, and a vast corporate conspiracy with implanted medical devices and environmental disaster, but the communication of these elements is so muddled that I kept having to rewind the movie to try and follow. Take the opening narration as an example:

“IN OUR future, one simple breath could mean life or death. As we search for a solution, pollution engulfs our world. If we don’t find an answer fast, all living things shall perish. We are the Five Elements, we strive to protect humanity… Years ago, many warriors came to us seeking change, joined our way of life. Right after, A Code was discovered that could save the world and was injected into one of us. We even lost one of our clan’s mate. Now we must fight for our lives to bring the code – to the world…or die trying. With the MediCan Research Corporation and The FOUR 11 gang on our tails….We must protect the code….AT ALL COSTS.”

I guess the pollution is killing everyone, yet we don’t really get a sense of this impending and immediate danger because life seems pretty normal; people are hanging out at bars, strolling around, not rationing what might be their final breath. Because of this pollution, a corporation is looking for a solution for its implantable medical devices, yet why is this even introduced except to provide another batch of shadowy bad guys with a plot crowded with shadowy villains? The corporation wants a solution, a code, which is what the heroes have, and the heroes want to get the code out to save humanity, so why aren’t they actively working together? Why introduce two sides who have the same goal if they are never going to meaningfully interact? I suppose the evil corporation would exploit the code for profit, but why not express this through actions? Also, why is this world-saving code only injected into one person rather than, say, uploaded to the Internet? Why risk your only vessel containing the world-saving magic code getting hit by a bus? If the goal is proliferation, there seems to be more safety in diversifying the code-carriers. The rival evil gang, the Four 11s, are a criminal syndicate but their leader has a sick child. Wouldn’t this code also help cure this child? Why are all these organizations working against one another? The world building of this universe feels cluttered and confusing and lacking narrative purpose. It resembles a little kid making up the rules as they go for a game you didn’t recognize.

As Neil is introduced into the Five Elements gang, we’re inundated with names but not so identifying personalities and things to better cement the deluge of characters. We have Cloud, Water, Earth, Fire, Wood, Gold, and if you forced me to identify who was who I would not even under penalty of law. There are so many characters in this movie and very few, if any, leave a favorable impression at all. They are repositories of kicks and punches and the occasional grunt. Water (the exquisitely named Crystle Paynther Collins) keeps bringing up her dead sister to the point that I waited for her to reference it every time she was onscreen, and she did not disappoint. Naming your main character Neil, and sticking him in khakis to perform martial arts, made me laugh. It’s not that his code name “Cloud” is that much more intimidating. When you introduce characters in movies, it’s a good idea to give them a moment to set them apart, and through action, which will better convey who they are and through visual storytelling. This is one of those movies where a character says, “You need to see Earth and Gold or else Wood and Fire will combust,” and you just shake your head and try and determine who these people are and what are their connections. It’s clumsy writing and there are too many characters to keep track of without stronger involvement. After watching 80 minutes, everyone just blurred together into People Who Kick (except for Neil and his mighty fighting khakis).

The problem with Immortal Combat is the same I’ve seen with other low-budget indies, namely that these movie projects were not made for a mass audience. They play like an insular group project for friends and family of the production, people who are already in the know and on board, and the writing and development are tailored for this narrow band rather than a broader outside audience. To make a movie for others, you’d have to carefully explain your plot in a way that would be engaging, clear, and escalating, with characters distinguishable by personality, goals, and choices, and you’d want to integrate them in meaningful ways that also push our protagonist or heroes to victory. You’d have to put the work in to make it an actual movie. Immortal Combat feels like it was made strictly for its friends and family, like finding excuses to squeeze in extras for gang group shots despite the fact that the very presence of “non-threatening-looking” members calls into question the hiring practices and determination of this vicious martial arts gang. When people who look like your ordinary neighbors are in a martial arts gang, do you fear them? This also extends to our invisible special forces team. Some of these guys have a noticeable deficit in their effort or duty to their job. There’s nothing wrong with creating art with a small intended audience. I’m sure corporate offices make little videos all the time only intended to play to their employees. If you’re thinking beyond your immediate circle, however, then you must put more thought into your storytelling choices and make the plot and characters matter rather than finding room for everyone to fit onscreen.

Immortal Combat plays like an overextended martial arts demo reel and a plot was strung together to justify more and more exercises, resulting in a calamitous collection of confusing characters that are nearly interchangeable and often extraneous and expendable. The impact and excitement of all that martial arts choreography is blunted somewhat by the choices how to present the fighting and revealing the lackluster energy levels of some of the performers. I know in reality that fight sequences are often at a slower speed when filmed, same with car chases that typically only go at speeds of 30 miles per hour, but you make choices to obscure those nagging parts of reality to maintain the illusion that these kicks are furious and these cars go fast. It’s the same thinking when it comes to casting and crafting a story that naturally widens rather than simply polluting it with more names and faces that will only leave a dent for making dents. It looks like the actors and people behind Immortal Combat had fun making a movie, and to that end I have no qualms with any of them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the elements to reach beyond its circle.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Side note: the poster for this movie is wildly inaccurate. Like amazingly inaccurate. There are no characters in the movie resembling those on the poster, which definitely seems designed to be the Asylum version of Mortal Kombat.

Without Remorse (2021)

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is Tom Clancy without Tom Clancy. It bears no resemblance to the famous author’s 1993 novel even though the entire production feels remorseless about being generic military thriller genre grist. There’s nothing to spark the imagination here, no signature action sequence or well developed turn of events, no colorful personalities or hissable villains. It’s all predictable from the opening credits onward, from the opening mission that cannot go according to plan, to the assumption of the short shelf-life for the pregnant wife in Act One, to the Obvious Red Herring Antagonist and the Obvious Real Antagonist played by the big name actor, to the presumptuous preparations for building a franchise in post-credit sequences. The best thing about Without Remorse is Michael B. Jordan as our lead Navy Seal seeking vengeance and climbing the ladder of international conspiracy. Jordan gives a far better performance than this material and movie deserves, always demanding your attention. He’s charismatic even in generic thrillers like this one, and it is the definition of a generic military thriller lost in the dull minutia of a thousand other similar movies. There’s really nothing separating this movie from the glut of direct-to-DVD action thrillers starring the likes of Bruce Willis (who filmed his part over a weekend). The motivation for the villain’s plot to kick-start another global war with Russia is laughable when there’s a ideological motivation within reach that would have worked and been interesting, namely declaring Russia already an enemy of the country and forcing those in power to fight the war they are ignoring. Instead, the stated rationale is so much dumber. If you’re a fan of these kinds of action thrillers, or the sub-genre that Clancy carved out for himself for decades, then you’ll likely find enough to pass the time with Without Remorse. It had glimmers where it could have stepped outside the mighty shadow of its influences. I wouldn’t have been surprised if this was starring Dolph Lundgren rather than Michael B. Jordan.

Nate’s Grade: C

Mortal Kombat (2021)

Mortal Kombat is video game royalty, and if you were a Millennial that grew up in the 90s, then you likely have your own personal connection to this bone-crunching franchise. Released in 1992, the halcyon decade of fighting games, the arcade game gained notoriety and parental infamy for its photo-realistic fighters and for the over-the-top violence. Players could finish off their opponents in brutal and bloody fashion, drawing the condemnation of parents and politicians and only making teenagers want to play the games even more. I can recall my disappointment over the Super Nintendo port of the first game lacking the blood and gore of the arcade, something my Sega Genesis friends could lord over me with their faithful port (there was a code where you could turn the copious amount of sweat red, but it wasn’t the same). This was corrected with the release of Mortal Kombat II, and I think I devoted two whole years of my teenage life to playing that game, memorizing every player’s special moves and deadly finishes. I never really kept up with the franchise after the third game, and from what I’ve seen with the newest versions, I can safely say they just aren’t for me anymore. The gore of the 90s games was campy and ridiculous and the gore of the current games is too medically graphic for me (I’m not alone; apparently the game developers also needed therapy as they suffered trauma from their research and detailed recreation of the intensely destructive violence upon human bodies).

I can recall seeing the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie at the local drive-in with my friend and fellow fan of the franchise, and we lapped it up eager to see any live-action version of our video game obsession. We were so excited and ignored the faults of the film, and we weren’t alone. It gained the reputation as one of the “better video game movies,” which is a criminally low bar to clear. I never watched the 1997 sequel, Annihilation, but it’s widely regarded as a so-bad-it’s-good farce and definitely an insult to fans of the games. From there, fans have been savoring the day another Kombat film could find its way to the big screen, something to wash away the taste of the cheesy 90s movies that were both PG-13 and lacking the signature gore of the series. The new 2021 Mortal Kombat movie is firmly rated R and is chiefly made for the diehard fans. It’s a fun and bloody movie with some flaws, but I don’t know what more I should have expected from a franchise that, from its very beginning, has literally spelled “combat” with a K.

The plot is straightforward for a game centered around a super-powered inter-dimensional fighting tournament. The Outworld has won nine tournaments in a row and with one more victory they will gain control over Earthrealm. Sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Sun) is the ruler of the Outworld and has the bright idea that if he kills all of Earth’s chosen fighters ahead of time, it will make his next tournament victory that much easier. He sends powerful assassins to Earth to locate the Chosen One, an MMA fighter named Cole Young (Lewis Tan) who doesn’t know he’s the descendant of a destined family line of warriors. Cole is taken under protection by Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), where he is trained to reach his true potential. He needs to unleash a hidden superpower to compete with the best of Outworld.

First off, if you’re looking for a Kombat movie that is faithful to the atmosphere of the games, then you should walk away happy. Nobody is going into this movie and expecting Oscar-level material. We’re here for the fights, the crazy characters, and the gasp-inducing gore effects, and to that end the third film incarnation of Mortal Kombat mostly delivers the goods. Compared to the 1995 movie, populated with majority white actors with varying degrees of martial arts skills, and “varying” might be charitable, this is a clear winner. These are actors here from The Raid, Wu Assassins, Into the Badlands, The Twilight Samurai, Mongol, and plenty other worthy martial arts spectacles, so the filmmakers clearly valued having actors who could credibly perform the complex fight choreography. It’s also worth noting that we have Asian actors playing Asian characters, so that’s a bonus for authenticity and reverence as well.

The opening six minutes of the movie really sets up how serious and potentially great it can be. It’s the early 1600s, and we’re introduced to the quiet family man, Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a member of a Japanese ninja clan that is being hunted by Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), a dangerous warrior from a rival Chinese ninja clan. The opening is patient, thoughtful, and eerie, and when the fighting breaks out it’s done in longer takes where we can watch the actors strut their physical stuff. The fighting makes specific use of each character’s skills and is a satisfying start. The movie never quite lives up to these artistic heights again, at least for a sustained duration, but this taste of a legitimately good Mortal Kombat movie is enough to make you believe we can return here again.

The rest of the movie is decidedly fun and clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously (they even make fun of the “combat” with a K spelling). It’s got characters that can shoot lasers from their eyes, invisible monsters, four-armed strongmen, metal arms, and just about every character introduction is another opportunity for the movie to shrug and just accept its inherent weirdness of its rogue’s gallery. There’s a lady with dinosaur wings and another guy with a really sharp hat. What you want is for the filmmakers to present a world where these characters work, something that didn’t succeed with the goofy 1990s movies. I think the script by Greg Russo and Dave Callahan (Wonder Woman 1984) accomplish this feat and presents a world that finds a credible middle ground between campy indulgence and self-serious blather. It’s serious enough to not break out into derisive laughter but it’s still not too serious that the filmmakers have forgotten what the audience has paid to see. The gore effects are sticky and impressive and gross without being offensively so. The creative process for this movie was likely crafting a list of all the red-strewn finishing moves from the games and figuring out how best to squeeze them into the royal rumble. Every character gets a signature move, along with plenty of clunky catchphrases also crammed in for fan approval. If you’re a fan of the games, they’ve designed this movie with your demands primarily in mind.

Where the movie falters are with decisions of pacing, structure, and some editing. Centering the story on a newcomer seems odd when any other established character could have sufficed, until you realize they’re setting up Cole Young to inherit the legacy of his ancestor and likely become the Scorpion we know so well from the games. Except that’s not quite what happens, which makes the decision to center him as an entry point perspective more confusing. It’s not like Cole is that interesting on his own. He’s a boring MMA fighter who wants to protect his family and that’s about it. He needs to summon his special power, and when he does, prepare to be underwhelmed. Another issue is that the second act is far too long and protracted. It’s mainly comprised of training exercises and people being told, “You’re not ready,” and vague force fields and teleportation powers that invite questions over whether they could have been used earlier. It’s too much training without the bloody reward of the gnarlier fights. This leaves the final act to be rushed and many of the climactic one-on-one fights are pushed into a measly montage. Finally, the editing of the fighting can become too choppy and jumbled to fully appreciate the onscreen action. The opening sequence is an example of where careful edits can highlight the choreography.

The new Mortal Kombat movie is fun, cool, bloody, and probably exactly what diehard fans would hope for from a big-screen rendition. It’s ridiculous but not tongue-in-cheek in tone. The visuals and special effects can often be weirdly beautiful especially with the crystalizing powers of Sub-Zero, the game’s popular ninja with the power to freeze and create deadly daggers of ice. There are some standout “wow” visual moments, like when Sub-Zero freezes a bullet firing from the blast of a rifle, or when he freezes his opponent’s spurting blood to form a knife. There were as many moments that brought a smile to my face as made me check the time. The dialogue is flat and the only actor who seems to really be enjoying himself is the proudly profane Josh Lawson as Kano. But when it comes to the fighting, the fatalities, and the franchise’s glorious selling point, it might not be a flawless victory but it’s still a victory nonetheless for fans.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Nobody (2021)

If you ever wanted to see Saul Goodman crack skulls like John Wick, well you’re in luck with Nobody, a perfectly enjoyable action movie that does little to separate itself from its influences. Bob Odenkirk has been on a wild ride of a career, beginning primarily as a writer and director of cult comedies and then turning into an award-nominated dramatic actor thanks to Breaking Bad and its spinoff, and now he gets his chance to try being an improbable action hero. Odenkirk plays a family man who freezes during a break-in. We think he’s a push-over, an office drone, a nobody, but he’s really nothing of the sort, and woe unto those who come after him for bloody vengeance. The plot is pretty thin and plays out very much like a combination of Joker and The Equalizer, even down to its final, explosive, booby trap-laden final act. Much like the John Wick series, the importance is heavily placed upon the action and stunt choreography. We’re here for the spectacle. While Nobody doesn’t rise to the dizzy action highs of the Wick franchise, it’s an above average action movie and has fun moments of unique style thanks to director Ilya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry). A fight scene aboard a bus is extensive and exhausting, leaving both parties gasping and bloody. Odenkirk’s character isn’t quite the impervious video game avatar that Keanu Reeves portrays; he’s rusty and limited, but by the time that climax comes rolling, he might as well be the Terminator. It’s not enough to disrupt the fun of the movie but the one area that could separate Nobody from the punchy pack just vanishes by the conclusion. The addition of Russian gangsters feels too cliche and unremarkable, as they just serve as a quick pipeline for bad guys to be abused. The addition of 83-year-old Christopher Lloyd as a sneakily formidable nursing home resident is much less cliche and much more enjoyable. If you’re looking for an action movie that packs a punch without taxing your brain, Nobody hits enough of the right buttons to suffice.

Nate’s Grade: B

Chaos Walking (2021)

Chaos Walking has been shrouded under the ominous reputation of “troubled production” from its very inception. It’s based on a 2008 YA science fiction series by Patrick Ness and has gone through writer after writer, trying to hone this story into a visual medium. At one point, Charlie Kaufman was attached as the screenwriter, and if Kaufman, the man who turned his struggle to adapt a book about flowers into a meditative and meta experience, can’t find a way to make your story work, then I doubt many other Hollywood writers can. It began filming in 2017 with director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) and sat on the shelf for years, with the studio execs reportedly dismissing the finished version as “un-releasable.” Fifteen million dollars in reshoots took place in 2019, helmed by Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe), and now the finished movie has been quietly dumped to theaters and on-demand markets. Chaos Walking is, indeed, chaotic, but it’s mostly dull and simplistic with a premise that feels ripe for social commentary that the movie has no interest in because it would detract from its eighteenth depiction of another forest chase.

In the future, mankind has settled on an alien world with some unexpected results. There is a strange quirk about this planet – the men are incapable of hiding their inner thoughts, which materialize in front of their heads as visuals with their narration echoing (nick-named “The Noise”). Women, for whatever reason, are unaffected. It’s been so long since another supply ship from Earth has come that life on this alien world has begun to resemble the struggles of the early terrestrial pioneers. Todd (Tom Holland) wants to impress his small town’s authority figure, Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), and become an adult faster than he might be ready. Viola (Daisy Ridley) has made the multiple-generations trip from Earth but her spaceship crashes. Todd finds her and panics because she may very well be the only woman alive on the planet. He elects to hide her and try and reach an old technological outlet, while the Mayor leads a posse to round her up and maybe kill Viola.

Given that premise, you would think that Chaos Walking was setting itself up for some sharp, uncomfortable, and relevant social commentary about the plight of being a woman in a modern society. If Get Out was a horror story about being a black man in America, I was thinking Chaos Walking would be a horror story about being a woman in America, but I was wrong. Think about the premise, with every woman subjected to a society of men that cannot hide their unconscious objectification, their leering harassment, their distressing ulterior motives, where every man’s uncontrollable thoughts will be broadcast. It’s an empathetic and horrifying glimpse into the daily dismissal, exploitation, and condescension that woman experience. You add the extra element that women are immune and now they also become the subject of projected male resentment, that they feel judged, and this only makes the men more hostile and confrontational. Being “the last woman” also presents an obvious threat of sexual violence as well. It’s all right there, and yet Chaos Walking barely even toys with its explosive gender commentary; there’s a reason all the women are dead on the planet, but it’s not exactly revelatory, and its inclusion, at the expense of all other notable social or political commentary, makes the explanation feel more perfunctory. Why even bother having a premise that features a gender disparity if you’re not going to really say something about the treatment of women? If you think about those old movies where it’s one man on a planet entirely of women, or some similar dynamic where there is a giant gender upheaval, and they always say something about it. What would be the point of making an exception for one kind of person and then ignoring the larger implications? Well, I’ll never truly know, because Chaos Walking doesn’t seem to know either.

I can see why this premise works on the page where the reader is already able to immerse themselves in the inner thoughts of a point of view character. I’ve never read the source material but I can imagine it being like a jigsaw puzzle of first-person perspectives. It’s a little harder to translate into a visual atmosphere in a clear and meaningful way, especially when you’re limiting what it all says. As its portrayed onscreen, The Noise is often muddled and visually hard to decipher, and while it mimics the half-formed nature of thoughts (people don’t typically think in complete, declarative sentences) it’s still too abstract and confusing. The wispy visuals are opaque and glisten like sunlight in gasoline pools, which makes the imagery less easy to determine. It’s like someone made a sci-fi thriller and just ladled on extraneous visual elements but didn’t want anyone to properly decode these special effects. Sometimes the premise works, like when Todd is trying to hide his fears, like when he envisions a beat-down from a dangerous crowd, or when he purposely imagines scary imagery to spook a rival’s horse. Too often The Noise just feels exactly like that when it comes to the narrative. It’s a peculiarity that is underdeveloped and could well be forgotten. It’s such a strange experience to watch a high-concept movie where the filmmakers are seized by indifference with their high-concept. I don’t know if maybe this is a subtle acknowledgement of defeat.

There’s one character that symbolizes the futile adaptation of The Noise and that’s Reverend Aaron (David Oyelowo). He’s living in conflict with his own community and his Noise is more apocalyptic, fire and brimstone, and he views The Noise as a connection between man and God. Now that is interesting, looking at this quirk as a gift or curse from God and trying to make a spiritual understanding over why man, and only man, has been given this ability. It seems to radicalize him. At long last, here is a character with a direct and personal relationship with The Noise, the hook. How does this change his relationship with God, his sense of self, and his feeling of disconnect from being so far away from home in this alien world? Well, all of that tantalizing characterization and potential depth is cast aside. Reverend Aaron is merely a religious zealot and a boring one at that. It’s hard to determine whether he’s gone over into violent extremism or is seeking absolution, which makes him just another dangerous antagonist that appears here and there but you can’t quite square. This character could have been legitimately intriguing from the story specifics of how he would respond to drastic change, isolation, introspection, and a crisis of faith brought on by the environmental turmoil. Instead, he just becomes a secondary heavy chasing characters for vaguely unsatisfying reasons.

Chaos Walking is not a fascinating failure or a so-bad-it’s-amazing fiasco, it’s just a mediocre chase movie. It’s patterned after Westerns visually and structurally, with the frontier town being lead by a Black Hat who is chasing after the Drifter who represents a threat to the status quo. It’s not just the horses, dusty trails, vilified natives, and small-towns shootouts, Chaos Walking is very intentionally a science fiction Western, a pairing that seems to keep getting tried on by Hollywood studios like an old pair of cowboy boots they’re positive fit perfectly once long ago. As far as space Westerns go, it’s fine. The action is fine, though I grew tired of the visual mundanity of characters continuing to walk in the woods, run through the woods, and take refuge in the woods. For an alien landscape, Chaos Walking often feels frustratingly plain and unimaginative. All of these interesting science fiction asides and additions and it’s really just interested in being a second-rate space Western. The screenplay is held together as a series of rote chases. The main characters are bland and Ridley’s straw-like blonde wig gave me bad memories of Kate Mara’s bad wig from the infamous Fantastic Four reshoots. For its 110 minutes, you won’t exactly be repelled from the screen with boredom but you won’t be tempted to pay close attention either. Chaos Walking is too generic, too safe, and too derivative to be anything more than passing entertainment. I wish it was more chaotic and un-releaseable just to be more memorable and worth your time.

Nate’s Grade: C

Thunder Force (2021)

I feel like we were just here a matter of months ago, another aimless Melissa McCarthy comedy vehicle written and directed by her husband and chief enabler, Ben Falcone. With Thunder Force, McCarthy becomes an accidental superhero and that premise should be enough with this star to power a silly and amusing 90 minutes of entertainment. Once again it’s a dispiriting comedy that feels like it’s just sitting around and waiting for the performers to find something funny in their scenes and family-friendly improv ramblings. The energy of this movie is completely slack, and scenes feel adrift, lacking proper direction or purpose. The whole movie feels gassed and grasping. It takes 45 minutes for McCarthy to train to be a hero and sometimes there just aren’t jokes. Take one instance where McCarthy literally throws a bus, a point strangely referred to multiple times earlier as a setup for this long-desired moment, and then under Falcone’s uninspired direction we don’t even see the messy results. We don’t even see the bus crashing into, like, an orphanage or something that would provide an actual punchline. The comedy malpractice can be staggering. It’s the kind of movie that resorts to characterization where everything is clumsily reported to us, like, “You’ve always been this way since…” The chemistry between McCarthy and Octavia Spencer (The Witches) is lukewarm at best for these longtime friends. The buddy comedy doesn’t even seem like it was developed beyond its initial pitch. The shining light of this movie is easily Jason Bateman (Ozark), who plays a crab-armed mutant criminal that becomes an improbable romantic suitor for McCarthy’s character. If there is anything that made me laugh, it was related to this character (and an ordinary henchman named Andrew who may or may not be targeted as the next to get killed by his evil boss played by Bobby Cannavale). I even loved the simple image of Bateman crab walking off screen with his arms in the air. The sheer weirdness is enough to make you realize what potential could have been tapped with this super premise and with McCarthy, who can be so charming and disarming when she gives into her odd impulses. Just give me a full movie where a middle-aged superwoman tries to make a relationship with a crab-man super villain work. I wish that Thunder Force had more courage to chase its weird rather than settle, time and again, as an action comedy that is middling with its action and middling with its comedy. I think I had more fun with 2020’s Super Intelligence, another mediocre Falcone collaboration.

Nate’s Grade: C

Godzilla vs. King Kong (2021)

Godzilla vs. Kong is the kind of movie where you need to question what your qualifications would be for its true entertainment value. Four films into the fledgling MonsterVerse, we’ve set up its Batman vs. Superman, its Infinity War, its climax, the biggest names on the biggest stage to settle the score once and for all. With indie director Adam Wingard at the helm, best known for peculiarly violent genre-defying movies like You’re Next and The Guest, the results with G vs. K (I’m not writing the full name every time) strictly fall into the realm of dumb fun. It’s up to you which of those categorical designations will reign supreme, the dumb or the fun.

The gigantic 100-foot tall ape Kong is being kept in a caged atrium by the Monarch organization. Godzilla is running amuck and attacking a shady company that may have a shady conspiracy afoot. Kong and Godzilla are two alpha predators, the last known titans, and it’s believed that Godzilla is seeking out Kong to put him down for good. The government is trying to protect its great ape, figure out why the big lizard is acting up, and maybe explore this kooky Hollow Earth theory. There’s a reason I haven’t mentioned any human character names because, once again, they don’t really matter.

This movie is going to entirely depend on how much your love of monster brawls can, essentially, push aside crazy, incoherent plotting and meaningless human characters. If you’re the kind of fan going to G vs. K and expecting nothing else than bruising knockdown fights that decimate the landscape and ensure untold death, no matter how many times we’re told the entire city of Hong Kong has miraculously evacuated in minutes, then the movie delivers. There are three big brawls and each one of them is satisfying and has a weighty quality to them; they really do feel like heavyweight title fights, with each side giving it their all and then some. It’s an epic showdown and we demand the best from this clash of the titans, and Wingard comes alive during these sequences, finding stylish ways to demonstrate and develop the carnage so that the brawls feel unique rather than stale. Each of the three major battles takes place in a different location and uses that environment to its advantage when developing its action particulars. The first bout is at sea and Kong is chained to the galley of a warship, so Godzilla capsizes the ship, attempting to drown Kong. The water is also a far more friendly place for Godzilla, with Kong forced to jump from ship to ship like platforms in an old school video game. The rematch takes place in downtown Hong Kong and offers the traditional metropolitan cataclysm we’ve come to expect from disaster escapades (again, with vague reminders that somehow all these buildings are empty). Godzilla’s fire breath becomes a laser field that Kong must avoid with drastic escapes. Wingard’s camera finds fun ways to communicate the back and forth, at one point seemingly attached to the monsters as they pummel and move, like an arty Darren Aronofsky film. He finds ways to make two age-old creatures fighting still appear visually fresh and exciting. When the creatures are slugging it out, G vs. K is at its best as big-budget popcorn escapism.

I also must applaud that filmmakers that, four movies in, we finally have monster fights where the audience can see what is happening. 2014’s Godzilla reboot kept teasing the big lizard and giving glimpses, a foot there, a closing door here, that built anticipation but also tried audience patience. My biggest complaint was I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie, and 2019’s King of the Monsters answered this complaint, providing four different monsters to duke it out for monster supremacy. However, the supernatural slug-fests were undercut by sequences that were hard to see. Whether it was in the rain, at night, in a blizzard, in the fog or smoke, it was hard to tell what was happening because of all the annoying visual obfuscation. We had more monster fights, yes, but they weren’t that much easier to see than in 2014. Thankfully, this movie seems like a direct response to that chief criticism. The big fights take place entirely during the day, and not only that, it’s clear and even sunny, making sure we can soak up every loving CGI detail of these two giant pretend creatures having their big pretend rumble. It may sound like I shouldn’t be too congratulatory for a franchise that dares to allow its paying customers to actually see the spectacle that they paid to see, but after several other films of mitigating results, I’m happy we at least can enjoy the big brawls after so much build-up and delayed gratification.

But if you expect more from a versus film other than predicated pugilism from your preferred participants, then G vs. K is going to disappoint. It is a vast understatement to say that this movie is extremely loony. It is so goofy that you will either shrug and go with the silly twists and turns, or you’ll be like several of my friends, and my girlfriend, who just stared stupefied and shook their heads, muttering how much more crazy-pants bananas things could possibly get.

For a franchise that started fairly grounded in 2014 from a science standpoint, and whose sequels have more or less hewn to that tonal vision, G vs. K says, “Hey, what if we…,” and injects whatever it deems might be insane and awesome, like an improv game that never meets resistance. Whatever you may be prepared for, this movie goes deeper and crazier. It literally goes to the center of the Earth and back. If I were to describe the parameters of the final fight, it would sound like I was drunk or needing of mental check-ups from concerned loved ones. It feels like the Asylum version of what a Godzilla and Kong match-up would be, and by that I refer to the low-budget studio known for its schlocky knockoffs and crazy all-you-can-eat buffet-style sci-fi plotting. There’s one solution that literally involves dumping alcohol onto a computer. Again, maybe your exact sensibilities will be a match for this wilder, sillier tonal wavelength; maybe you felt the earlier MonsterVerse entries took themselves too seriously. I’ll readily admit that they devoted far too much time to human drama I felt was, no pun intended, irritatingly small-scale. 2017’s Kong: Skull Island is the high watermark for this monster cinematic universe, and definitely better than you remember, and it didn’t take itself too seriously but found an agreeable baseline that allowed the film to have its spectacle while holding the human drama to be meaningful and entertaining itself. The movie was stylish, fun, and your brain didn’t melt when the big creatures were off-screen for long duration.

With G vs. K, any sense of established connectivity with the other movies is thrown out the window. Sure, there are faces that reappear (hey, Millie Bobby Brown), but they might as well be new characters. Even more than that, the tone of the movie is shifted so forcefully into self-parody, cheesy ludicrousness, including a spaceship serving as a moving defibrillator and psychic skulls, that it’s hard to take anything remotely seriously. I can already hear some detractors saying why should a movie about a giant ape fighting a giant lizard ever be taken seriously, and maybe you’re right you detractor you, but every movie needs an established baseline to provide a foundation of what is real, what is meaningful, and what is exceptional. If everything is crazy, it makes the monster action seem more mundane, and if anything can happen at any moment, it makes the plotting less important of careful setups and development, and satisfaction will be capped.

If you’re just looking for a movie about a giant ape punching a giant lizard with top-notch special effects, well Godzilla vs. Kong has that aplenty, and if that’s enough for you, then enjoy. It’s far more of a Kong sequel with the occasional special appearance from Godzilla, so if you’re more a fan of the big lizard you may be a little miffed at the big guy being a second banana. The action is fun and splashy, and I wish I watched this titanic title match on the big screen where it belongs, and I’ll admit that likely has dulled some of my experience. The sharp tonal shift for the MonsterVerse, and the escalating silliness that climaxes into insanity is either going to be selling point or a breaking point for every viewer. You’ll either rock with glee and happy that this franchise has finally evolved into the schlocky spectacle you’ve been dying for, or you’ll be trying to hang on to the silly, over-the-top plotting to orient your staggered senses. Godzilla vs. Kong is everything the title suggests and little else, and for many that will be enough. For me, I think it kind of lost me somewhere between here and Albuquerque.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Zack Snyder had a unique situation that many filmmakers would never get close to fulfilling. He departed the 2017 Justice League movie in the wake of a family tragedy, Joss Whedon was hired to direct and rewrite extensive reshoots that totaled an estimated additional $30 million dollars, and the world was given the strange amalgamation of two different filmmakers, along with the nightmare-inducing CGI baby lip to replace actor Henry Cavill’s mustache. The 2017 theatrical release of Justice League was meant to be a significant milestone for the DCU, launching an all-star assembly of superheroes and setting up future solo adventures and franchises. It was meant to be a major kickoff and it was simply a major shrug. The general public was indifferent to the 2017 League, and it seems like the DC brass is positioning for a cinematic universe do-over, retaining the elements they liked (Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot) and jettisoning the other pieces to start anew. In the ensuing years, fans have been petitioning for the fabled “Snyder Cut,” a theoretical version of Justice League that was closer to Snyder’s original artistic vision before the studio intervention and interloping of Whedon. It became a joke on social media and then one day it became real. Warner executives, seeing opportunity with the rabid fanbase, decided to give Snyder an additional $70 million to finish his version of Justice League. It would be an exclusive to their new streaming platform, HBO MAX, and Snyder could complete his version without artistic compromise. The resulting four-hour version, titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is less a movie than a mini-series, and a rare chance for a director to complete the story they wanted to tell without artistic compromise. After having watched the full four hours, along with re-watching the 2017 version again for comparison, The Snyder Cut just feels like the original version only longer. I would actually advise people that if they haven’t watched either Justice League to simply catch the 2017 version. At least its mediocrity is half your time investment.

Once again, months (?) after the death of Superman (Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is traveling the world and recruiting a very specific group of job candidates. He needs serious help to combat an oncoming alien adversary, Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds). The cosmic Big Bad is looking for three special boxes, a.k.a. mother boxes, to destroy the world and make way for his master, Darkseid. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) helps Batman convince the half-man/half-machine hybrid Cyborg (Ray Fisher), underwater dweller Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and hyperactive speedster Flash (Ezra Miller) to form a league of sorts to thwart Steppenwolf.

I think it’s unfair to judge the 2017 film to the Snyder Cut as a movie simply because this version never would have been released in theaters. No studio would have released a four-hour version. The two edicts that Whedon was given by the studio when coming aboard the project was that it could not be over two hours and to lighten it up. Imagine what the 2021 Snyder Cut would look like if Snyder was then tasked to cut it down to a more manageable two-hour running length. I predict many of the same scenes being eliminated or dramatically trimmed down. That’s the main takeaway from the Snyder Cut, that there is more room for everything, and quite often too much room. I swear a full hour of this movie might be ponderous slow-motion sequences. Plot-wise, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is pretty close to what was released in theaters in 2017. The action sequences are extended longer (Steppenwolf’s attack on the Amazons has increased from six minutes to a whopping twelve minutes) but I don’t know if they’re dramatically improved. Instead of two punches there’s four; instead of one chase, there’s two. It’s that kind of stuff, filling out the sequences but not really elaborating on them in an exciting fashion that reorients the moment. I liked some additions, like the inclusion of blood during the underwater Atlantis fight because it added a neat visual flair, but the added action is often obscured by visual decisions that dis-empower the experience (more on that later). I found myself growing restless with the movie. All that added time allows some sequences and plot beats to breathe better, but it also allows Snyder to meander to his greater indulgence (more on that later as well, notably on the multiple epilogues). The four hours feel like Snyder’s kitchen sink approach, and with the benefit of years of hindsight from the critical and fan reception of the 2017 version, he’s able to spend tens of millions to correct mistakes and improve a flawed film.

I hate how this movie looks for multiple reasons. The most obvious difference is that the aspect ratio has been altered to a 4:3 ratio more reminiscent of pre-widescreen television. Why is this the case? Snyder has said he cropped his movie to this boxy format so that it could be played on IMAX screens. That’s fine, but why crop your movie now months if not possible years before it will ever play on IMAX screens? When it comes time to adjust for the IMAX screen, adjust then. Why must every viewer see this limited version now on their widescreen televisions at home? It’s just so bizarre to me. It would be like if Quentin Tarantino reasoned that his movies will eventually play on airplanes, so he better get ready and cut back his widescreen into a flat, pan-and-scan mode, and he might as well include alternate takes and scenes to cover for those that would be deemed too profane or intense for the all-ages captive audience of an airplane, and then that version was the one he released to all audiences and we were stuck with it. Snyder had millions of dollars to reshoot his epic and he lopped off the edges, meaning you’re getting more movie but also less (at least the footage predating the new reshoots) in every second because of the framing. The grandeur of the superhero saga is also extremely hampered by the drab color palette. Snyder has always preferred muted colors to his movies but his Justice League drains all life and vibrancy. Everything is literal shades of grey. Color is not allowed to exist in this universe. A sunset is almost comical. Apparently, there’s going to be an official black-and-white version but we’re already practically there. Some could argue the oppressive grey is meant to evoke the grief and heaviness of the picture, and I’ll give you some leeway with that, but the drab colors also nullify the visuals. It’s simply harder to see everything that’s happening even during the daytime, and then you tack on the ugly CGI that makes everything look like a fuzzy video game. For a movie that has cost potentially over $350 million dollars combined, Justice League looks so phony. Maybe that’s part of Snyder’s overall stylized look, he’s never really been one to visually ground his operatic action spectacles, but I feel like the aspect ratio and color palate just make it worse. For those four hours, this is often a very visually unappealing movie to watch.

With the added time, there are definite benefits and characters that are lifted by the extra attention. Chief among them is Cyborg, a character that felt like a Swiss army knife in the original who was just there to perform whatever techno jazz the movie required at a moment’s notice. With the Snyder Cut, the character becomes more engaging and given a fuller arc relating to the relationship between father and son. The father’s placement in the story actually matters and Cyborg has more of a personal journey coming to terms with his new abilities. There is a back-story with his frayed relationship with his father, his accident that caused him to become the creature he is, and a reoccurring theme of a son blaming his father and the father trying to reconnect with the son he refused to part with. I still think Cyborg ranks low on the list of superheroes, but the additional scenes give the character more weight, more tragedy, and more intrigue. Another added benefit is that Steppenwolf’s motivation is improved as well as his look. He’s now outfitted with a herring-bone armor that twitches over his body. It’s a more intimidating look than what he had going on in 2017. I also appreciated that he now has more motivation other than “conquer the universe” because now it’s “conquer the universe to get back in the good graces of the boss.” Steppenwolf is trying to repay a debt and make amends, and that makes him slightly more interesting than his generic motivation in the original theatrical cut.

However, not all the new editions are as smooth or as helpful. The added time with the rest of the Justice League doesn’t seem to have added anything to their characters. Each one’s arc is more or less the same from the 2017 version, except now we have even more scenes of Wonder Woman wondering whether she needs to get off the sidelines and be more involved (the events of WW84 conflict with this timeline) and Aquaman rejecting his call to adventure from the Atlanians. Neither is a richer portrayal and the scenes are redundant. Take Wonder Woman finding out about Steppenwolf’s attack. In the 2017 version, her mother lights an arrow and it sails into Greek ruins, signaling her daughter, who knows what this means. In the Snyder cut, the arrow still lights the Greek ruins, but now Wonder Woman visits the ruins, she gathers a stick, she wraps a cloth around it, she dips it in kerosene, she lights it on fire, she enters a secret room because of the arrow, she jumps down a cliff, she finds a hidden temple with hieroglyphics warning about Steppenwolf and the mother boxes and Darkseid. Even if you really wanted the end where she sees those hieroglyphic warnings, why did we need these many steps to get there? The opening hostage/bank heist scene is given far more attention, with multiple scenes of hostages being terrorized, and then Wonder Woman literally vaporizes the chief terrorist. A little girl looks at her, likely traumatized for life by the whole experience, and says wistfully, “I want to be like you when I grow up.” She wants to be a murderer? In Snyder’s universe, Superman kills people, Batman kills people, so why not Wonder Woman too?

The revised introduction of Barry Allen is also regrettable. He’s applying for a dog walking job and a car accident occurs and he saves the day, but not before slowing down time in a frustrating manner. This is because he seems to be dawdling while the rest of the world is frozen, which makes the event seem less special. His movements seem less urgent than Quicksilver in the X-Men films when he would perform the same memorable slow-mo set pieces. I disliked that the Flash’s big involvement in the final showdown was literally running around in a circle, a repeat of what he had done prior. Also making the slow-mo save introduction less special is the fact that the Flash picks up a hotdog floating in midair for silly reasons. It’s drawn out with interminable slow-motion and the song choice is baffling, a common theme throughout Snyder’s movies. I think he’s been smarting ever since he painfully paired Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with a sex scene in 2009’s Watchmen, and now we must al endure similar awkward auditory pairings. Every song inclusion just feels wrong here. As Aquaman is drinking and walking along a pier, in slow motion, we hear “There is a Kingdom” by Nick Cave, and it just doesn’t pair right, especially in contrast with the hard-rocking guitar riffs from The White Stripes in the 2017 version. For good measure, Snyder even includes another “Hallelujah” cover by the end for good measure, as if he’s still fighting this same battle over musical taste.

And then there’s the barrage of epilogues, each the start of a story never to be continued, and it approaches the realm of self-parody (spoilers to follow). We get three endings, the first an extension of the post-credit scene from the 2017 version where Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) suggests the formation of a Legion of Doom for villains. He even shares with Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello) that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Well, that could be an interesting next step, but we know it’s not to be so it becomes just a teasing preview. The next ending cuts forward in time to the dusty, apocalyptic vision that Batman had in Batman vs. Superman, and he’s got a crew including an older Flash, Meera (Amber Heard, why does she have a British accent now?), and even Jared Leto’s Joker. They’re facing off against a villainous Superman who has been driven mad by the death of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), which is pretty much the plot of the Injustice games. The Joker is antagonizing Batman with some references to killing someone close to the Dark Knight, and this whole sequence amounts to Snyder basically saying, “Hey, here’s where I wanted to go with things but you’ll never see it.” Then there’s a third ending, because the second is revealed to be another dream/vision for Batman, where he meets Martian Manhunter, a character that, other than diehard comic aficionados, no one cares about and has been given any reason to care about. The guy just introduces himself and Batman is like, “Oh, cool,” and that’s the ending Snyder decides to close his four hours with. There is a literal half-hour of epilogues and false endings to finish with and I was exhausted. I owe Peter Jackson an apology.

In my original review of the 2017 Justice League, I wrote, “I think I might have actually preferred Joss Whedon not being involved and simply releasing the full Zack Snyder cut. It would have been stylistically more coherent. Much of the Whedon reshoots do not feel like they are for the better. To be fair, he came in late and this franchise behemoth had already gone too far to fully alter its fate. There are small moments that work but the big moments are what fail. This movie is missing setups, payoffs, and character arcs. It’s missing pathos and emotion. It’s missing memorable action sequences that are exciting and varied. It’s missing basic internal logic. It’s missing a greater relevance.” Some of those issues are resolved with the four-hour Snyder cut and too many others still remain. At the end of the day, this is still just a longer, bloodier version of a mediocre superhero movie, except now we get stuff like Batman saying the F-word, so I guess that’s cool. I have more of an artistic appreciation for what Whedon had to pull off to even wrangle this beast into two hours. I’m happy Snyder was able to fulfill his complete vision and that HBO MAX offered a platform that would provide such a rare opportunity of expensive art unencumbered by studio meddling. I can’t say it’s worth your four hours, nor can I say it’s dramatically better than the 2017 version because whatever benefits it offers are weighed down by the extraneous, the redundancies, and the length. As it stands, I feel I have no choice but to grade Zack Snyder’s Justice League the same as the 2017 Justice League.

Nate’s Grade: C

Boss Level (2021)

It’s a time loop action movie where Frank Grillo (The Purge: Anarchy) plays a special forces agent going through one long, hellish, bullet-heavy day of violence on repeat. As with other time loop movies, the joy is watching the many different iterations and building from previous excursions and finding the fun detours to discover with the many “what if” scenarios at play. Boss Level is simply fun and disposable entertainment. We watch Grillo strut through the day with amazing clairvoyance and annoyance as he does over and over again, with a team of flashy Smokin’ Aces-esque super assassins chasing him down through the day to score the big hit. The story is rather generic with Grillo learning to take responsibility for being a father, with a generic villain played by Mel Gibson and a generic damsel-in-distress ex-wife played by Naomi Watts. The appeal is Grillo and his gruff charm as well as the darkly comic violence and the creative ingenuity of Grillo dying over and over and then persevering. The action, while definitely scaled down through its lower budget, is filled with fast cars, explosions, gun fights, and pulpy over-the-top deaths to really make the movie feel like perhaps the best video game adaptation even if it was never a video game. The biggest drawback is that this movie is packed, wall-to-wall, with excessive and grating voice over where Grillo’s character will explain EVERYTHING on screen and I just wanted him to shut up. It’s not like his constant verbal commentary is really adding anything; he’s not exactly a character with a strong personality. I am not kidding when I say that 90 percent of this voice over could be eliminated entirely. Imagine being stuck beside an annoying and ceaselessly chatty neighbor in a theater and having that intrusion drown out the experience of the movie, and that’s how prevalent and irritable the constant voice over can be. Seriously, there’s more voice over than dialogue here. Otherwise, Boss Level is a suitably stylish, slick, and action-packed B movie with enough flair and imagination to fill up 90 minutes of entertainment. Three time loop movies in under one year makes me wonder what genre will next be explored. Get ready for the medical drama time loop, the courtroom thriller time loop, and maybe even the disaster movie time loop. Whatever they may be, they guarantee at least a watch from me.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Disney’s new animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, is coming at an opportune time and in some ways it’s a movie of the moment. It’s all about a divided nation learning to heal and learning to trust one another despite bitter disputes. I can only hope the ensuring months and years of political dispute in this country can end as fortunately as Disney’s fantasy fable.

We follow Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) as she embarks on a quest to save her people and the divided lands of Kumandra from a mythical evil that has returned to the land. Dragons gave their lives to fight this monstrous force known as the Druun that turns life into stone. The world has been divided into separate nations surrounding a dragon-shaped body of water. There is Tail, Claw, Heart, Fang, and Spine, Raya ventures to uncover the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), the dragon that originally thwarted the Druun, except Sisu says she’s not exactly the best at magic and dragon stuff. Together, Sisu and Raya are chased by Raya’s childhood nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan), the next-in line with Fang, the nation blamed for the new outbreak of the Druun. Raya must find a broken piece of Sisu’s dragon stone from each nation to level up her powers and banish the Druun once and for all and return everyone who has turned to stone, including her father.

In many ways, Raya feels like Disney trying to do its own fantasy universe akin to the Last Airbender series. The world building is tantalizing and feels lived-in, the lands distinct and with personalities and different cultures, and those cultures are respective of their environments. I was pleased to continue with the movie and discover more well laid details that built out this world and its inhabitants, the relationships to the dragons, and the veneration of magic. The stone statues each represent a person succumbed to the evil, itself a byproduct of the inability of the splintered nations to unify and trust one another (more on theme later). I appreciated the respect and reverence given to the fallen and to the dragon statues as well. There’s a scene where Namaari and her crew are walking through a field of overgrown dragon statues and they treat it with such reverence like it was a war memorial. For Namaari personally and for Fang especially, the sacrifice of these creatures is one that humanity has been struggling to live up to. I also appreciated that the magic and lore is presented as we need it, so that the audience is overloaded early with an onslaught of new information needed to orient this make-believe world. The filmmakers do a fine job of building from previous established information and expanding naturally to complicate their world and the larger conflict. The plot through line is left pretty simple, collect the pieces of the magic rock, but because of the accessible formula it also builds anticipation we can attune to. It gets me to wonder what new power Sisu will inherit, how that new nation has dealt in the ensuing time with the power and influence of the magic shard, and what new fun character we’ll pick up along the way.

Raya is also an exciting edition to the Disney animated collection. I’ve watched the movie twice, and would watch again, but I really honed in on the action during my second viewing. The fight choreography is impressive and not simple standard kicks, punches, and sword slashes. There are specific moves and countermoves here, and the long takes with the action allow the audience to appreciate the complexity of the brawls as if we were watching The Raid. There were some moments that genuinely gave me goosebumps. I also appreciated that the action isn’t gratuitous; each scene has an emotional connection to a character and their conflict, even the many run-ins between Raya and Namaari trying to prove themselves against one another. This is also a movie where we are replete with strong female characters, diversity, and women in positions of power, and nobody makes a big deal out of it. It’s accepted as the norm and I think that’s smart. It’s nice to add another kick-ass Disney “princess” and for there to be not a single mention of romance throughout the movie. There are bigger issues and the ladies aren’t fighting over a boy’s attention but over their personal rivalry and anger. For a briskly paced 100-minute movie, Raya and the Last Dragon has enough action and awe to provide satisfying thrills for all ages.

Where Raya admirably succeeds is with its adherence and execution of theme. The characterization can be limited at times for anyone beyond our protagonist, but that doesn’t mean that the supporting players are without charm and resonance and importance. They contribute nicely, just in other ways. The screenplay does an excellent job of supporting the theme of trust and unity, a topic that is in short supply today in a turbulent time of social and political upheaval. The different clans of this fantasy land have resentment, animosity, and decades of score-settling to make it even harder to trust, especially anyone from the Fang nation, the people blamed for the current epidemic. It’s much easier to project anger on an outward force rather to blame than look at our own culpability, and it’s even harder to take that first step to repair the damage done from broken trust and manipulation. Still, the entire journey of Raya, both film and character, is on the importance of taking that step regardless of whether or not it works. Each character from a different nation represents another factor in dealing with grief, and each has reasons not to trust the others, to only think about themselves and their interests, to perpetuate a failing cycle.

The movie articulates the dangers of holding onto grudges and distrust with every moment, so when the climax happens it’s a small yet very meaningful payoff, where the characters don’t make grand final stands and showcase amazing powers against an overwhelming force. No, instead it’s about demonstrating faith in the possible goodness of another person and taking a leap. Sisu suggests offering a friendly gift to make amends and it becomes a running joke but it’s also indicative of her character and personal experiences, how she differs from the contemporary and more nihilistic world, and the larger theme. The movie mentions several points how empowering trust can be, to be valued and believed in, regardless of mistakes and misgivings, and Raya embodies this with every decision, meaning even the small moments and silly side characters have a larger purpose and contribution to the overall message of this tale.

There are some elements that hold Raya and the Last Dragon back from true greatness, joining the ranks of Disney’s recent epic 2010s run of Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, Moana, and yes, Frozen (sorry haters, it’s still great). As I said before, the supporting characters are kept more at the idea level than multi-dimensional. They each represent a facet of loss, but I would have liked a little more attention given to them to have more tiny character moments and maybe even some realized arcs. As it stands, they support Raya on her arc and they become subsumed by her arc, and it works, but there was an opportunity to deepen these cute supporting players into more meaningful members. There are some elements that feel like holdovers or clues about earlier drafts, little remnants of scrubbed storylines. Repeatedly Sisu will remind us what an excellent swimmer she is as her special dragon power and we witness this once to use in a minor escape. With the build-up given, you’d expect the movie would make more with this in a climactic manner.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a worthy and exciting entry into the Disney animated canon and presents a fantasy world of its own making with detail, ingenuity, and care, supporting a central theme with every primary creative decision, even if some of them hinder what could have expanded the film into an ever bigger and more diverse ensemble. As it is, it’s all about Raya, who is an engaging and compelling figure trying to prove herself and atone for her own guilt. Her rival is given consideration as well from the pressure she’s under to serve her people. However, this is the Raya show (her name is in the title after all) and that’s plenty for 100-plus minutes of entertainment. Raya and the Last Dragon is a good-to-great animated fantasy film and one I think could support further exploration. This could be the start of Disney’s own Airbender world if they wanted. The animation is fluid and colorful and gorgeous and the character designs are easy to distinguish without placing undue emphasis on exaggerated features to characterize this as a Chinese fable. The vocal acting is great, and by the end of the movie, as its theme comes full circle, I don’t mind admitting I was even tearing up a bit. It’s a well-designed and well-developed fantasy with a secure emotional foundation to build upon.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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