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-
The new Mulan looked like something I’ve been begging for in this surging era of live-action Disney remakes, namely something different. I don’t need inferior live-action versions to shorter animated classics, and as Disney enters into a more modern trove of remakes, the courage to adapt becomes noticeably less. There’s a reason the 2019 Lion King was simply a sludgier, superfluous version that was beat-for-beat the same, and it’s called $1.5 billion dollars worldwide. People want their nostalgia as they remember it, thank you very much. The Mulan remake looked to be taking a different route; it eliminated the songs, the comic relief sidekicks, and overt supernatural characters. It was going to be more serious, more mature, and more action-packed, and I was all for it. The release was pushed back several months due to COVID and finally lands on Disney+ but at an extra cost. I would advise fans to wait. This new Mulan 2020 isn’t worth your time and it’s certainly not worth an additional $30 to be disappointed by.
Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a young maiden in old China who has trouble fitting into how society says a woman should behave. The Emperor (Jet Li) orders all families to supply one male into the royal army to combat Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his powerful witch, Xianniang (Gong Li). Mulan takes her family armor and poses as a man to take the place of her ailing father. She wants to serve but she’s also hungry for adventure, and over the course of her training, she will come to fully understand her real power.
I knew within minutes that this movie was in trouble. In a flashback, we watch young Mulan chasing after a chicken, not listening to her father, causing havoc and consternation from neighbors, but then she effortlessly climbs to the roof of her neighborhood and then, as she falls off, is effortlessly able to recapture her balance and land perfectly like she was Spider-Man. From there, the first act tells us that Mulan is not just a super-powered being of high chi (think midi-chlorians and The Force) but also potentially the Chosen One (like Anakin Skywalker) and she must hide her real power to… not bring disgrace to her family? I’m sorry but this makes little sense. I understand the oppressive cultural expectations for women at this time and how women’s real value, as judged by their society, was through marriage and child-rearing. However, we’re now in a world of magic where living super-powered beings walk among us (mutants in X-Men), but rather than valuing this, it’s shunned because she’s a girl? That seems even more preposterous to me. The screenplay followed the Captain Marvel feminist theme and it’s about a woman finally coming into her own power, shunning the restraints, and embracing her full potential against the wishes of frightened men. If after reading all of this that sounds like a good start for a movie, let alone a live-action remake of Mulan, then have at it, dear reader. For me, this began as a thematic and tonal mess that didn’t get better. By making Mulan a super-powered being it eliminates her relatability and the stakes of the movie. She’s no longer an ordinary girl who struggles to do her best. Now she’s essentially a god who just has to turn on her powers and subdue easily outmatched opponents. That’s a significant loss and mistake.
If you were going to be a martial arts epic where characters have super powers, then be that movie and give me epic showdowns between epic warriors. Give me a heavy dose of magic realism and eye-popping imagery. Chinese cinema has plenty of examples of these kinds of movies in recent years. One needs to only start cycling through the filmography of Zhang Yimou for spellbinding supernatural martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers and 2018’s Shadow. If you’re going to be a heightened world of extraordinary combat, then build your movie around that tonal decision and start from there. In Mulan 2020, people exist with amazing abilities but nobody treats this with the recognition it deserves. There appears to be a prevalent form of sexism as powerful men are seen as impressive but powerful women are seen as frightening and dangerous, often derided as witches. There was room for exploration of Gong Li’s (2046, Memoirs of a Geisha) character and the parallels with Mulan, both women feared for their powers and apparent threat to a hierarchy that wants to exploit them but not include them. My girlfriend was irate throughout the viewing and pointed specifically at the witch character and declared, “They’re going to give her a lame redemption story where she sacrifices herself at the end to save Mulan, and I will hate it.” And boy oh boy did she hate it.
Alas, Mulan 2020 cannot sustain itself as a supernatural martial arts epic. As an action spectacle, every moment is shortchanged, which is not good when you have a whopping $200 million budget. The action consists of a handful of characters, at most, and only a short display of activity. There are no strong action set pieces and well-developed sequences that keep your excitement pumping. There is some acceptable fight choreography here and there but little to tickle the imagination or approach the poetry of something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I don’t know if director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland, USA) feels confident enough as an action director of big visual spectacle, and that uncertainty leaks throughout the finished film. Take for instance camera movements meant to be stylish but instead becomes perplexing. As our big bad villain and his crew ride toward the outer walls of a village, they leap from their horses and ascend the walls, and the camera shifts 90 degrees to follow the movement smoothly. That’s a good stylistic choice. Then mere seconds later, as they reach the top, the camera will abruptly shift again 90 degrees, then back again, but the characters haven’t shifted their stances or perspectives. Caro has taken a stylistic flourish that had meaning and seems to be hitting it again and again, but without the earlier context, it becomes confusing, arbitrary, and annoying, and it happens multiple times. Because the movie doesn’t fully embrace being a martial arts spectacle, when it does employ super human tricks, it runs the risk of being goofy. Mulan has several moments where she kicks flying arrows into her foes as if she was a soccer player setting up a wicked trick shot. I welcomed a martial arts epic version of Mulan but the filmmakers were too timid to commit.
There are several moments that left me scratching my head in the adaptation process. Take for instance Mulan deciding to take her father’s place. In the animated film, it’s a big moment and we watch her slice her hair with her ancestral sword, put on her father’s armor, and it’s treated like the big character-defining moment that the story demands. It’s like watching a superhero transform and suit up for battle. In Mulan 2020, this moment is denied to us and we skip to her turning around already in armor and riding off. Why? Why wouldn’t you want to savor and dwell in a moment of great drama and a turning point for the character? Likewise, late in the movie, once Mulan accepts her destiny and not to compromise her powers, she strips her father’s armor piece by piece and flings it off herself while riding into battle. I understand the symbolism of her stripping away the uniform of entrenched masculinity but two things: wasn’t this her family’s armor that meant something of value, and isn’t wearing armor a good defense in a battle? What’s the point of removing the supernatural ancestral elements from the animated film to simply give Mulan a flying phoenix that mainly serves as a cursor to point her in the right direction?
Let me open up one head-scratcher and how it could have been resolved. Mulan has a younger sister but her inclusion is practically meaningless. Mulan’s parents worry about her capability of being docile and husband-material, but they have the younger sister who will serve their needs. The movie doesn’t present the younger sister’s perspective. She’s just a bonus daughter. It’s a confounding creative decision but I think, with a little more shaping, it would have justified itself. This sister could have been resentful of her big sister, for being selfish and rejecting her eldest responsibilities that would protect their family. These duties now fall onto her with the added pressure of being the only daughter who has a chance of attaining a good marriage. This could and should cause friction between the sisters, a divide that can be healed over the course of the movie. Dearly missing from Mulan 2020 is the ability of its titular heroine to share herself. She doesn’t have her magic companions coaching her, so she has no audience to confide in. As a result, Mulan feels so impassive and inscrutable. My solution: she writes a series of letters to her sister to explain her actions as well as her day-to-day fears and hopes, and in doing so it opens up the Mulan character as well as provides an outlet where her sister can learn and relate to her. That would have worked, and it would have justified the younger sister in the narrative as well as provide Mulan herself with an ongoing opportunity for reflection, expression, and confession.
Sadly, I also had serious reservations about lead actress Yifei Liu (The Assassins, Forbidden Kingdom) from her first moment onscreen as the adult Mulan. Her line readings were overwhelmingly flat. This may well be a byproduct of her speaking English as opposed to Chinese, and on that front, why couldn’t this movie have been entirely Chinese and subtitled? I understand Disney would view a foreign language version as less profitable but if you’re going for a more serious, more grown-up version of Mulan set in ancient China, how about trusting Americans to read? Regardless, Liu certainly has the right look to anchor a movie but her acting is too stilted. There are many actors who have great martial arts skills (Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee) that aren’t called upon. Why hire actors with great fighting capability and then give them precious little to show off? My favorite performer in the movie was Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma, The Farewell).
After watching Mulan 2020, I then re-watched the 1998 animated original, and my opinion of the live-action remake sank even lower. The animated film has it beat in every measure. The mixture of drama and comedy is deft, the emotional core of the character is fierce, and the supporting characters have distinct and discernible personalities, and the songs aren’t too shabby either. The villain is more menacing and has those very necessary moments to establish their villainy. The bad guys in Mulan 2020 have no memorable moments that make you go, “Oh, that’s a baddie.” Plus, the hand-drawn animation is beautiful and allows far more emotional expression for the characters, making it even more transporting but also engaging. If you’re a fan of the original, I cannot see how you will enjoy Mulan 2020, and if you paid $30 for that opportunity, I imagine you’ll be even more incensed. If it was going to be different, the new Mulan needed to fully embrace those differences and develop its new big screen story to be best suited as a martial arts epic for older viewers. If it was going to make Mulan a superhero, it needed to embrace this decision and heighten the world, mixing in fantasy foundations. The moments needed to matter and be a reflection of our heroine’s emotional journey. Mulan 2020 is a frustrating disappointment and another reminder for myself that live-action Disney remakes will rarely, if ever, even come close to recreating the charm and magic of their predecessors.
Nate’s Grade: C
In my lifetime, I’ve developed a fine taste for schlock cinema. I appreciate a jolly good bad movie that knows what it is. With that said, when you’re bad at being bad, then that’s a special case of bad, and such is the case of the hip-hop martial arts junk that is The Man with the Iron Fists. It looks like the kind of campy schlock I’d eat up, and with Russell Crowe as a murderous lascivious scoundrel to boot. The problem with this movie is that it has hip-hop artist RZA as a writer and director. It’s not horribly directed but RZA doesn’t have a firm grasp on action, relying too heavily on wires and spurts of graphic blood. But where the movie completely misfires is with a script that feels cobbled together with subplots belonging to other movies. There’s a basic vengeance storyline, but the first hour of this mess is awash in confusion with a flurry of characters and storylines that fail to coalesce. It feels like everything is just rattling around waiting to be given greater significance. It has a few memorable moments but just as many tacky eye-rollers, like Crowe pulling out anal beads with his teeth. The Man with the Iron Fists just feels so flat overall, lacking a jocular tone or a distinct personality that would have given it a little life. I appreciate the detail that RZA put into his violent world, but I’d appreciate it more if he worked harder at developing a clear story that also was engaging. For all its exploitation elements and fantastic characters, the ultimate sin of The Man with the Iron Fists is that it’s just too boring for too long.
Nate’s Grade: C-
If you’ve been let down by flaccid Hollywood blockbusters in the action department, then give Indonesia’s The Raid: Redemption (part one of a planned trilogy) a try. The movie is like 90 minutes of getting kicked in the face, but in the best possible way. The flimsy premise almost seems like that of a video game. An elite forces police team storms the tenement building of a crime lord. He traps them inside and alerts the unruly residents there will be a reward for whomever takes out the cops. Each floor presents a new level of danger, from machete-wielding gangs to thugs that could show Bruce Lee a thing or two when it comes to wizardly martial arts. When the action is pumping, you feel every electric second of it. Writer/director Gareth Evans uses every part of the buffalo when it comes to action cinema. He kills guys in ways you didn’t know existed. The action is brutal and often relentless, but Evans draws out scenes organically, making fine use of geography. Guys will break through walls, jump down floors, blow up gas tanks, and use everything from filing cabinets to broken doorframes to and florescent light tubes as weapons. It’s a thrill to be able to take in the beautifully balletic choreographed fight sequences; there one that goes on for seven minutes and should already be considered an all-time Top 5 contender in movie history. There’s a fairly pedestrian plot about police corruptions and some family connections, but that’s just gristle. The real meat is the action. It’s so exhilarating and gratifying that the rest is meaningless. The Raid is the best video-game-turned-movie ever, and I don’t even care that it was never a video game. Have you seen these special movies?
Nate’s Grade: B+
Let The Last Airbender be a shining example of how NOT to adapt a children’s fantasy series into a standalone 90-minute movie. M. Night Shyamalan was hired to write and direct the popular Nickelodeon cartoon into a major movie with a major budget. It’s astounding how poorly made on every front this movie is. Seriously, people should be taking notes because Shyamalan has given a blueprint of blunders to avoid. The first blunder, and perhaps the source of all the others: hiring Shyamalan to begin with.
The film takes place in a fantasy realm where human beings are divided into four different nations based on the natural elements: earth, fire, wind, and water. Each nation has a special select group of people that can control that element. These people are known as benders. The one figure who can control all four elements is referred to as the Avatar, and this figure is reincarnated into a different nation each generation. In the absence of the last Avatar, the fie nation has invaded the other nations. Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) has dishonored his father, leader of the fire nation, and been banished. He seeks redemption by attacking the water nation, where siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) live. They discover hidden among the ice a small bald child named Aang (Noah Ringer). This kid is the last of the airbenders and is believed to be the last reincarnation of the Avatar. For obvious reasons, Prince Zuko is after the Avatar to regain his father’s acceptance.
At one point christened with the moniker of “the next Spielberg,” the writer/director has been slipping and sliding down into the pits of his self-deluded grandeur and stubbornness. After Lady in the Water and The Happening, who in their right minds would give this guy $150 million to direct a special effects-driven summer action movie AND let him adapt the show too? Even if you somehow managed to convince yourself that Shyamalan sitting in the director’s chair was a feasible solution, why on Earth would you let this man near the screenplay? I must repeat: did people see Lady in the Water and The Happening (this is a rhetorical question, because nobody wants to remember seeing them)? The Airbender series is a very well regarded television show that has appealed to audiences of all ages, including those old enough to buy their own beer, thank you very much. What purpose does it serve to ditch the show’s creators and longtime show runners in place of giving the responsibilities for coming up with plot, characterization, and God help us, dialogue, to the man that last gave the world The Happening? The Happening, people! What did you think was going to happen? Even with the lowest of expectations, The Last Airbender will still confound with its dead-on-arrival acting, zero character development, and overly serious spiritual mumbo jumbo. Who at the studio read Shyamaln’s adaptation and thought it was ready to move forward?
The Last Airbender begins with an opening scrawl informing the audience of the four different nations and the significance of the Avatar. Then it sprints forward without ever establishing context. Spending time to explain the rule and makeup of a new world is essential to the fantasy genre; we need to be able to know the rules of this universe and the dramatic stakes. Shyamalan establishes his villains via a lame text crawl. How hard would it have been to open the movie by showcasing the Fire Nation being big and bad? Most films open by establishing the bad guys in true villainous form. This movie would have started out so much better by establishing the villains, their mission, why they’re so bad, and introducing the general audience to the family of bad guys. That way our first introduction to them isn’t so perfunctory. In the film as it is, Shyamalan just sort of slides his characters into the plot in the most bumbling, awkward fashion. We don’t even learn about Prince Zuko’s banishment firsthand. In grand Shyamalan style, characters explain to the audience at every opportunity. Because why would you rather watch Zuko try to impress his father, fail and become scared, and have his father banish him from his nationality, promising to return and win back his father’s approval… when you could just listen to a character recite what took place? Isn’t that way better than watching something in a visual medium? There are a terrible amount of moments that feel clumsily strung together, like several important scenes were taken out at the last minute.
This is emblematic of the entire movie because unless you’re well versed in the Airbender story, you will be as clueless as I was. I had no idea what was going on for most of the movie. Suddenly characters appear. Suddenly they can do some magical ability. Suddenly they can’t. Suddenly they’re gone. Suddenly we’re somewhere new. Suddenly this character’s dead/ Suddenly the Earthbenders are all kept together in a prison that lies atop plenty of bendable earth. Where’s the correctional planning on that one? I couldn’t explain why anything was all of a sudden happening, or what the exact rules were that helped or hindered characters, and I was left grasping for any sort of workable motivation among all the ridiculous and reflexive New Age spiritualism. Shyamalan and the film’s producers do not set up a damn thing. The film operates on a false assumption that the audience is already familiar with the source material, so it never stoops to setup plot or explain characters and events. That would be a waste of time when they have more substandard water effects to show. Because why would you want to spend $150 million on a movie that appeals to people outside a narrow margin of fans? And when you try and try and cannot understand what’s happening on screen, it’s only natural to lose interest. When the film is as dopey as The Last Airbender it only speeds up the process. I was deeply apathetic all the way through this ungainly mess.
I don’t think there’s anything that irritates me more in a fantasy film than when characters treat everything with such general indifference: “Ho hum, we just found a bald kid and his flying buffalo in a block of ice. Ho hum, he can master all the elements. Whatever. What’s on TV?” If the characters can’t be bothered to care then why should I?
I don’t know what this movie spent on special effects but whatever it was it clearly wasn’t enough. Last Airbender has some of the worst special effects I’ve ever seen in a major Hollywood summer release. Did the ILM gurus pass along their effects work to their interns? The green screen work, featured early with Katara and Sokka in some Icelandic realm, is ridiculously shoddy. People look like they have halos as they stand out against the all-too fake backdrops. The special effects in general are missing a polish and resonance that helps to disguise the illusion. I have to admit that it gets pretty boring watching one character hurl blue water orbs while another hurls red fire orbs. You would hope that a movie where people can control natural elements for combat they could do something more imaginative than fling different colored blobby orbs at each other. You have the power to control fire, the power to command the oceans or the wind, why must you low-ball it? I saw infinitely better choreographed elemental fighting on old episodes of Captain Planet and the Planeteers.
Once again Shyamalan completely betrays the trust of his actors (don’t think Zooey Deschanel can give an awful performance? See The Happening). He gets lost in the whirlwind of special effects and fantasy worlds, so his actors get short shrift when it comes to direction. Ringer look the part and can perform the tricky martial arts moves with ease, but is that the best reason to hire an actor? Can’t makeup take care of perfecting a look? Can’t a stunt double fill in for the more challenging physical stunts? I’d rather have somebody who can act rather than just look like the human form of an animated character. Ringer is an annoying messianic figure to have at the center of your franchise. His counterparts don’t fare much better. Peltz (Deck the Halls) is impassive and routinely hits the wrong note for a scene, and Rathbone (Eclipse, New Moon) is fairly wooden and plays too many scenes like he was given one note (“bigger eyes”). Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) gets to glower and his voice kicks up in volume at weird intervals. It’s another example of unmoored actors struggling for direction. But the worst offender in the film is Aasif Mandvi, though through no real fault of his own. He is dreadfully miscast as the movie’s chief villain, and wickedness is not in Mandvi’s repertoire. He’s a cutup on TV’s The Daily Show but here Mandvi couldn’t seriously menace anyone. His tone, demeanor, and even very look lack intimidation. He has a glint of mischief that you can’t take seriously. I’m usually not one to point and shout “racism,” but the fact that Shyamlan and the producers have whitewashed the film’s casting is troublesome. Caucasian actors have filled in for the series’ predominantly Asian characters, and all the villains happen to be transformed into dark-skinned figures played by Indian actors.
I can’t explain most of M. Night Shyamalan’s thinking when it comes to the finished product. The Last Airbender seems intended solely for fans given how forgetful it is when it comes to plot setup and explanations and back-stories. Why should an audience be able to follow along? Comprehension is overrated (David Lynch being a lone exception). At the same time, Shyamalan gives nothing back to those fans who have looked forward to a big-budget realization of the popular TV fantasy series. Shyamalan even seems downright disdainful, again falling victim to his own ever-swelling hubris. Why shouldn’t he write the script? Why would the creators have any clue about how to condense their mythological dense show into a satisfying two-hour taste? If you’ve never watched the TV show, you’ll leave the theater wondering why the hell anybody would give a crap about all this junk. The movie presumptuously sets itself up for a series of sequels that I doubt we’ll ever see, certainly not with Shyamalan’s involvement at the least. Shyamlan once again defies his critics and lives on to make yet another artistic disaster. If three straight duds couldn’t detract somebody from throwing $150 million and artistic license his way, then I don’t know if this man and his ego will ever be humbled or tamed.
Nate’s Grade: D
It’s not every day that Jean Claude Van Damme gets some marginal level of redemption. The original 1994 Street Fighter film took the classic arcade fighting game and took it as seriously as possible, which meant it was incredibly silly. Van Damme was Colonel Guile and entrusted to rescue hostages from the evil dictator, Bison (Raul Julia). The big screen adaptation rewrote entire characters but managed to keep the stuff fans really care about, like catchphrases, costumes, and super moves. God forbid that audiences see Cammy (Kylie Minogue, yes that Kylie Minogue) make the wrong victory pose. It’s always the unimportant things that somehow matter the most to execs. Street Fighter is a campy blast. How could you despise a movie that has its villain say, “For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me… it was Tuesday.” Though the movie does have the depressing distinction of being Julia’s last film before he died. Let this be a lesson to all actors looking to take a paycheck role. Years later, in the wake of a writer’s strike, the execs at Fox thought they could pump new blood into a Street Fighter franchise. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li purports to tell the back-story of one of its most popular fighters, the diminutive fireball-tossing lass with Princess Leia’s haircut. This movie proves that you don’t need a Van Damme to make a boring and mediocre action movie.
Chun-Li (Kristin Kreuk) is trained to be a master pianist and also a master martial arts warrior. You don’t realize the kinds of dangers classical pianists constantly run into. Her father is kidnapped by the crime lord Bison (Neal McDonough) for some reason or other. Three years later, a mysterious scroll falls into her possession. She travels to Bangkok to find her father. Bison has the ingenious plan of buying waterfront property, introduce high levels of crime, and then making money on lowered property values, which is simultaneously confusing and stupid. Bison has a few evil henchmen, notably the giant boxer Balrog (Michael Clarke Duncan) and the masked warrior Vega (Taboo from the Black Eye Peas), who help wipe out his criminal competition. In Bangkok, Chun-Li is mentored by Gen (Robin Shou, who played Liu Kang in two Mortal Kombat movies) and together they attempt to thwart Bison and his dastardly real estate scheme.
For a movie about streets and fighting, well there’s a clear shortage of the latter. Much of the movie is structured around Chun-Li conducting her own private investigation and achieving some level of inner peace. She decides to try and make it on the streets of Bangkok. There are forgettable training exercises with forgettable platitudes disguised as wisdom (“You’re hurting me,” “No, you’re hurting yourself”). There are a handful of lackluster fights and chases, some of them through streets even, but the movie has a scarce amount of action until it revs up for a climactic showdown. The action is also poorly shot and poorly edited, distracting the senses and making it downright impossible to understand. The choreography is nothing special. When the movie suddenly introduces a supernatural element the other characters don’t even bat an eye. Screenwriting neophyte Justin Marks has too much revenge-seeking father drama and real estate scheming and not enough brawling. The Legend of Chun-Li has zero respect for the intelligence of its audience. It has flashbacks to flashbacks that just aired minutes earlier. How hard would it have been to just actually base a Street Fighter movie on a fighting tournament?
Director Andrzej Bartkowiak (Doom, Romeo Must Die) shoots the movie in such a dull manner that the fight sequences fail to even elicit any interest. There’s one scene in the middle of the film that serves as a testament to the lack of care put into this movie. Chun-Li has battled a Bison henchwoman in a women’s bathroom. The bathroom set design includes partition walls with portholes. Chun-Li is on one side and the henchwoman tries to punch her through the porthole. Chun-Li grabs the woman’s arm and squeezes. The camera angle is from the side of the actresses, so it would make the most sense to have the henchwoman’s right arm caught, that way her expression could be seen. Nope. Chun-Li is gripping the woman’s left arm, meaning that her raised arm and shoulder block any view of the woman’s face, and yet she talks through this scene. How difficult would it have been to just switch arms? Why purposely obscure an actor’s face, especially in a scene that doesn’t require a stunt double?
Here’s a curious item. Chun-Li has always been a full-blooded Chinese woman in the history of the video game. When we see her as a child, baby Chun-Li and child Chun-Li are very obviously Chinese in features. Flash forward a few years and she’s transformed into looking like Kreuk, who is half-Chinese. Apparently, one of the less common side effects of trauma is becoming less Chinese looking as you age. Along these same strange ethnic lines, we’re told that Bison was the child of Irish missionaries and was left behind in Bangkok. And yet, the child grown up completely in Southeast Asia manages to sport an Irish accent. Anybody want to explain that particular linguistic loophole?
Kreuk (TV’s Smallville) is one of the film’s biggest handicaps. The script saddles her with great amounts of pointless voice over, to the point that half of her performance is listlessly explaining what is literally happening on screen. Kreuk is a dead-eyed robot in this movie; she displays some glimpses of human emotion, like sadness and rage, but they never feel remotely credible, like someone who only knows the definitions of emotions and not proper application. Her lesbian seduction dance is a small moment of absurdity. She thrashes on the dance floor and her “dancing” reminded me more of a bird’s mating dance without the excessive plumage displaying. Kreuk can run and flex well enough, which is also a nice benefit for a martial arts action flick.
The acting is terrible but there is one bright spot in a most unexpected location. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the best worst performance of the year, brought to you by Chris Klein (American Pie). Klein plays Interpol agent Charlie Nash who is conducting a parallel investigation into Bison’s Bangkok activities. He’s partnered up with a local gangland homicide detective (Moon Bloodgood) who takes extra care to showcase her cleavage thanks to work outfits with plunging necklines. Klein is awful to a powerful degree but here’s the thing — I’m fairly certain it’s one hundred percent intentional. Being a conosoire of trashy cinema, I feel that I’ve adopted the skill of being able to deduce when an actor is hopelessly serious or just goofing off. Klein comes across like a self-aware man; he knows this is a crummy movie with crummy dialogue, so he’s going to have as much fun as possible. His performance is all forced swagger, from the way he constantly swivels his head to the way he cannot purposely walk in a straight line. He overemphasizes lines, chewing over the faux hard boiled detective talk and spitting it out in a singsong delivery. He grimaces and furrows his brow, widens his eyes to comical levels, and when he crouches in a gunfight the man spreads his legs as far apart so that he looks like he could have effectively doubled as a backup dancer in an MC Hammer music video. It’s obvious that Klein has given a staggering performance, but the observant will note that this is not an inept performance. This man knows exactly the kind of movie he’s in. I always tabbed Klein as a wooden actor that came across like Diet Keanu Reeves, but I must credit him for making a bold acting choice to knowingly dig deeper when it comes to being bad.
Readers know that I am skeptical and dismissive about the prospect of a good movie ever being born from a video game adaptation. Games call for interactivity and movies passivity. But if you’re going to make a movie called Street Fighter than stick to the script. This borefest wants to be a gangland drama with a tacked-on buddy cop side plot. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is an awful work partially redeemed from the sheer amount of unintentional hilarity. Kreuk is extremely miscast as a warrior woman. The acting is bad, the direction is bad, the writing is bad, and Chris Klein tries to outdo them all in badness, and I admire the chap for trying something different in an admittedly abysmal movie. To be fair, I was never a big fan of the original video game. The special moves always seemed much more tricky to pull off. How many different incarnations of Street Fighter II were there before they eventually mastered basic math and released Street Fighter III? These are the things I was thinking about wistfully whenever Klein or Bloodgood wasn’t on screen.
Nate’s Grade: D
When last we left The Bride (Uma Thurman), she had reawakened from years of coma, traveled to Japan to acquire the finest sword ever created, and crossed off two names from her list of those marked for death in the name of bittersweet vengeance. O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Lui) and Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) fell under the hand of The Bride in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Now, the only members left of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS), the group our heroine was once a part of, are the one-eyed Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), Budd (Michael Madsen), and the titular ringleader, Bill (David Carradine).
Kill Bill, Vol. 2 takes a very sharp tonal shift from the previous film. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 was a head-spinning orgy of blood and stylized carnage, and it could be argued that its actual plot was wafer-thin. But it seems with Kill Bill, Vol. 2 that Tarantino had answered every critical concern about the first film before they were even brought to his attention as the two films were shot and cut in one grand effort. This film has a much more genial sense of pacing and numerous moments of drawn-out monologues, a far cry from the breakneck pace and terse dialogue of its forerunner. Fans of the relentless hack-and-slash of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 may be disappointed that this film lacks the chopped limbs, geysers of blood, and senseless, yet immeasurably thrilling, slaughter. In fact, whereas the body count for a lone sequence of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 may be in the fifties, Kill Bill, Vol. 2 has three total murders. It is the quieter, more adult half of this revenge opus. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 was an homage to chop-socky grindhouse Japanese films. Kill Bill, Vol. 2 is Tarantinos homage to spaghetti Westerns and their languid pacing and showdowns.
Thurman has always been as good as her director, and under the hands of a master like Tarantino she excels. In Kill Bill, Vol. 1 she was a hurricane of rage and an unstoppable warrior. Here we see the human being inside the warrior’s armor, and she performs with amazing assurance and a ragged, raw delivery. When she’s crying on the floor, face and body red and strained, aching, you believe everything this woman does and is capable of doing.
Carradine, with his gaunt features and face like leather, gives the standout performance of the film. Whereas Bill was an unseen menace in Kill Bill, Vol. 1, with the final installment he becomes fully realized as both a figure of terror but also one of great tenderness. He has a lengthy speech about Superman, masks, and the mythology of comic books that is spellbinding. Madsen gives a fine performance steeped with surprising pathos. He’s the only former DiVAS member who feels remorse for his actions at the Two Pines Wedding Chapel that triggered The Bride’s rampage. A large subplot displays Budd’s current life slumming it as a bouncer at a sleazy strip club and getting verbally berated by people he could easily kill. You come away with the idea that its Budds version of penance.Madsen mixes his remorse with sadistic grit, like when he gives The Bride a choice between a flashlight or a can of mace, and this is before he buries her alive.
Hannah seems to relish every moment as the one-eyed right hand to Bill. There’s a scene where a character is suffering from venomous snakebites thanks to her and she sits down and reads a list of Discovery Channel-esque information she looked up on the Internet about the snake and painstakingly copied onto a notepad. She performs with such gleeful insincerity that it is hard not to start to like her for being so good at being so bad.
Perhaps the person that steals the movie though is Gordon Lui, who plays the cruel master Pai Mei that teaches Thurman all her moves. He has eyebrows like cotton balls and a long, whispery beard he loves to flick around. Its a shame that this hilarious character is not in the film longer. Kill Bill, Vol. 2 also boasts one of the greatest child performances I have ever seen. The actress that plays the daughter of Bill and The Bride has such a natural quality to her acting that it is amazing she isn’t coming up with her lines, reactions, and movements on the spot.
So does a longer, slower, talkier concluding half mean that Kill Bill, Vol. 2 plays it too safe or loses any of its steam? Hell no. Tarantino fills in all the rough spots and unanswered questions from the first film, and the result is drawing the audience further into the story.
We open the film with another perspective of the events that took place at the Two Pines Wedding Chapel that left a wedding party dead, and a bloodied, pregnant Bride shot in the head. We also discover how The Bride became the deadly warrior she is, why she chose to leave the business of hired killing, why Bill reacted in the extreme manner he did, and we even learn to our delight how Elle Driver lost her eye. The result of knowing the full story are characters, which in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 were more archetypal than living and breathing, that have become fully fleshed out, rounded, and incredibly complex figures full of remorse and vulnerability. The Bride and Bill transcend their descriptions as adversaries, and their relationship becomes more intensely complicated when mommy returns home to find her daughter still alive.
Despite all this fancy talk about character building, Kill Bill, Vol. 2 does not disappoint in action and thrills. A fight between The Bride and Elle inside a cramped trailer may be the most brutal, bone-crushing fight sequence I have ever seen between two women. Every strike that connects breaks something, be it furniture or bones. The final showdown between Bill and The Bride is a fitting and satisfying end for both warriors.
Tarantino’s concluding half of this story long in gestation is a highly entertaining, stylish, thrilling, engrossing, eye-plucking good time. There is so much to talk about. This is the first film since, perhaps, Gladiator that I have seen at the full-price theaters three times. In total, I have seen the Kill Bill saga five times in theaters, and I find something new and rewarding every time. Tarantino has given the masses a masterpiece and everyone should take the opportunity to see it.
Nate’s Grade: A
This is one of the dumbest movies you will ever see. I don’t mean to sound overly sensational or alarmist, but this is the honest truth if you sit and watch all of Bulletproof Monk. Item #1: The bad guys in the film are –get this– the grandchildren of Nazis. Yes, that’s right, Nazis. We had to have Nazis as the bad guys. There’s actually a scene where a blonde-haired blue-eyed grand daughter wheels her decrepit Nazi grandpa around. Oh yeah, and one of the Nazis runs the –get this– Museum of tolerance. Oh stop it, you’re killing me. Item #2: The titular monk (Chow-Yun Fat, pray for him) recruits pick-pocket Kar (Seann William Scott) to be his apprentice. Kar is an idiot. The Monk doesn’t help. His big mystery is –get this– why hot dogs and hot dog buns come in different numbers? Man, haven’t heard that one since the third grade. I could swear the screenwriters of this are third graders. That would heartily explain why a character is called “Mr. Funktastic.” Item 3#: The monk teaches in stupid opposite talk (“You cannot be free until you have been taken. You cannot be cold until you are hot. You cannot die until you have lived,” you try some). One of the monk’s lessons is that the laws of physics, mind you the LAWS of physics, can be bent just by putting your mind to it. He says gravity can be overcome if you just don’t believe in it. This is insane. At least in The Matrix it had some plausibility. Item #4: The movie is a complete rip-off of The Matrix. I’m not just talking style, no, I’m talking everything. There is a scene where the monk and Kar run through a street and building, defying gravity, being chased by men in suits and sunglasses, and they get to a roof where they must combat a helicopter. What movie does this sound like, hmmm? Item #5: The visual effects are done by –get this– Burt Ward’s effects house. Yes, that’s right, the guy who played Robin on the campy 60s Batman show has an effects company. And they did the horrible work on Bulletproof Monk. This movie is so terrible at every level of filmmaking that it becomes enjoyable to watch, in the same vein as 2001’s stinker Dungeons and Dragons. I defy anyone to find merit in any of it. Sometimes you have to wonder what Hollywood was thinking.
Nate’s Grade: F
Jet Li is a man with fantastic martial arts skills and splendor. I have no doubt in my mind that if this man were given a proper American vehicle he could knock ’em dead. Romeo Must Die was too tired and the fight scenes were too cramped (not to mention the hilarious spine flashing kick at the end). Li takes off this time as a Chinese intelligent officer who travels to France to unwittingly become the center of corrupt cops’ ire. Li dispatches people in some unintentionally uproarious manners like the use of chopsticks or acupuncture. The story is meaningless and just a door to the action sequences to show off the muscle of Li.
The biggest detriment of Kiss of the Dragon happens to be in the area of why the audience is forking over their green – action. The action scenes in Dragon are horribly choreographed and edited together. Nothing astounds the eye or makes the pulse race; it only annoys and agitates. The audience is coming to see some awesome kung fu delivered by its maestro Li, but what they end up getting is dull fight sequences horrendously spliced together. No sense of time or geography comes from these edits, which means there might be stuff happening but you don’t know what and to whom. If you’re going to showcase Li at least give the man a workable stage for his talents.
The story of Dragon is laughably bad with some perfect forehead slapping moments, like when Li is running from the bad guys and ducks into a martial arts class where everyone then takes him on. Bridget Fonda hits a career low as a woman forced into prostitution so she can retrieve her little girl again. The entire supporting cast is about as animated and well put together at the atrocious fight sequences. Only true die-hard fans of Li or kung fu should go see Kiss of the Dragon. The rest of the public should just hide their chopsticks when Li comes for dinner.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Ang Lee’s mythical tale of ancient… (Taiwan?) is full of visual marvels and plenty of moments of awe that make the audience believe in the power of cinema to transport once again. However, upon further viewings and more butt pain because of the large length, the film is not “one of the best ever made” as has been praised. When you get down to it and think the film really isn’t about anything but retrieving a sword and feminist roles. The visuals are striking poetry and the action is exciting and top-notch and that’s what really counts in the end.
Nate’s Grade: B