Bulletproof Monk (2003) [Review Re-View]
Originally released April 16, 2003:
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 granddaughter 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. 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
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS
This is, without a doubt, one of the worst movies I have ever seen, and I was entertained for every bizarre, outlandish, and awful second of it. Bulletproof Monk is based on a comic book series but it’s really an incompetently designed and executed $50-million mock version of The Matrix. Within seconds of the movie, I was already laughing out loud, and I need to go into detail just for the first ten minutes, which I highly recommend to everyone as a taste setter. We open with two monks battling atop a rope bridge and, even accounting for the poor aging of special effects two decades later, it is some of the hokiest green screen I’ve ever seen. The way both characters leap, the way the movie haphazardly edits around the fight, the speedy levitating like a video game glitch, the duel spinning that goes on and on without orienting the audience, and then it all concludes with the apprentice grabbing the elder monk’s incongruous rubber sneaker before he falls. In just a short couple of minutes, we already have a clear indication what a mess this will be. Then the Nazis show up and kill the Tibetan monks and search for a mystical scroll that has the power to destroy all life on the planet, which is a good enough reason not to leave it easily accessible to Nazis. The lead Nazi massacres the monks with the exception of Chow Yun-Fat’s nameless monk who has just recently been dubbed the supreme monk in charge of scroll security. The main Nazi shoots him and the monk falls off a cliff, but not before the Nazi says “monk” a dozen times, including screaming it to the heavens to conclude the scene when he cannot find the fallen body. I defy anyone to watch and appreciate the opening on an intentional level.
The action goes from incomprehensible to boring. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guys will just show up with a helicopter with attached Gatling guns and fire into a warehouse even though there’s been no established reason they know our characters are inside or where inside they should start firing. It doesn’t matter because all the movie wants is a sudden burst of action with a vroom-vroom going pew-pew-pew until there’s a big boom. These same goons are also perhaps the dumbest hired goons in memory, as they’ll miraculously get the jump on our heroes, complete with helicopter action, but not check behind doors when coming onto a roof. There’s a moment where Sean William Scott is overpowering a man six inches taller than him and clearly with a hundred more pounds on him. This isn’t through some ingenious example of outsmarting the competition or using torque to your advantage, it’s just Scott out-pulling this guy, and this is before he even adopts the fantasy-blurring superpowers the monk will teach him.
The action scenes are all chopped up with jumbled edits. The choreography can be passable at points but seems to emphasize the exact wrong moments, like the duel spinning monks that twirl needlessly forever in the opening or Fat leaning forward and spinning around the floor while casually eating a bowl of noodles to clown Scott. It’s badly composed and badly edited. The action scenes are so silly and stupid and then you throw in the willful distortion of gravity because, as we’re told, physics are only real if you believe in them. The world of bending reality worked in The Matrix because reality was an illusion (or, as the Merovingian would say, “an eloooschean”) and a virtual reality setting where rules could be bent. What we’re entering here is a realm closer to 2008’s Wanted, where the tried-and-true laws of nature are merely suggestions, and all the cool kids can curve bullets if they really put their mind to it. It’s not like action movies don’t already exist in a heightened world of expectations and genre pyrotechnics, and then you add martial arts mysticism on top of it with wire-fu and we’re already stretching the bounds. I think what rubs me the wrong way thoroughly with Bulletproof Monk is how lazy it is. It’s not like this monk has some special power that allows him to overcome physics, some master knowledge that will educate his protégé. He just tells him that belief is stronger than physics, like this was a sentimental children’s movie about Santa Claus. If that’s the level of explanation that’s acceptable, it’s a bad sign how much more effort will be put into any storytelling or entertainment factor in this ridiculous mess.
Let’s also zero in on the apprentice character played by Scott, an actor I’ve generally enjoyed and who was hitting his commercial heights circa 2003. He plays Kar, though when the monk informs him that he is mispronouncing the Cantonese word for “family,” the American pickpocket brushes away the cultural correction from the native speaker. Here is a man who lives and works in an old Chinese movie theater with a crotchety old Japanese owner (Mako) and where he watches classic kung-fu movies and teaches himself martial arts. I suppose Kar could be a self-taught genius but he displays little dedication or skill beyond pickpocketing, which has always been a nagging movie cheat to me where people can just barely bump into you and magically gone inside your coat pocket and lifted a wallet all without your awareness. He’s the wise-cracking sidekick-slash-protégé learning about the wider world and breaking the rules, like Neo. Except he’s mostly obnoxious and useless, that is, whenever he isn’t inexplicably taking out professionally trained mercenaries with moves he learned from Bruce Lee marathons. Kar is not even an enjoyable annoying role for Scott like in 2003’s The Rundown.
Another ridiculous character and storyline involves the leader of the underground street gang and his name is Mr. Funktastic. I know this because Marcus Jean Pirae (Girl Next) literally has “Mister Funktastic” tattooed on his bare chest (though it looks like he might be missing a well-placed “N” as well). He’s British and the leader of a gang of would-be street toughs and orphans, and it’s like the movie has dipped into something downright Dickensian, or maybe the 1991 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. These guys are upset that Kar is stealing on their turf and challenge him to prove his mettle. I don’t know what this idiot character adds to this universe besides further making it incredulous. He and “his girl” even party in the underground raves in old subway cars, and all of this just makes me wonder what adults think goes on in subway systems. Oh, and that’s right, the female love interest is named Jade, played by Jaimie King (Sin City, Pearl Harbor), and this plays into one of the most stupid yet hyper specific ancient prophecies that tips off the monk to Kar’s potential. All you need to know about the supporting characters in this movie is that there are multiple generations of Nazis and they are running a Holocaust museum secretly to hold onto their trophies under the cover of enlightening the world about anti-Semitism and white supremacy.
Bulletproof Monk is the only movie directed by Paul Hunter, a respected music video director who has worked for decades and is responsible for Aaliyah’s “One in a Million,” Mariah Carey’s “Honey,” the “Lady Marmalade” remake from Moulin Rouge, and the unfortunately titled duet by Jay-Z and convicted rapist R. Kelly, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent.” This experience must have been so bad that Hunter swore off ever helming another feature-length movie again. The nature of music video direction attracts stylists, but this movie is so overburdened with trying to ape The Matrix on a scaled-down budget, with janky bullet-time effects and wire work (our heroes are even on the run from men in suits and sunglasses). The wire work doesn’t add grandeur and majesty to the movie because it doesn’t have the understanding of how to present it so that it looks cool; it always just seems goofy and inferior to better references. I think Hunter’s personal vision and style were just swallowed whole by the demands of making this silly movie, encroaching studio pressure, and it feels like he just gave up and the movie was benignly born by committee. I don’t blame Hunter for giving up on this movie and I guess on all movies.
Can you enjoy Bulletproof Monk on a so-bad-it’s-good level? Do hotdogs come in packages of ten and hotdog buns come in packages of eight? The answer is an enthusiastic yes. This movie is ridiculous in every moment, only forming a somehow more ridiculous whole that defies not just the laws of physics but conventional storytelling and good taste. It’s a movie that has no idea what to do with Chow Yun-Fat and his abilities, instead coasting on the idea of the man’s involvement like the geezer teasers of recent memory that don’t so much challenge their famous stars as advertise they could afford them for a weekend or two of un-taxing demands. It’s a movie that begs to exist on a dumbed-down level of action movie junk science but doesn’t understand how to, properly, have fun within that setting. It’s so transparently indifferent or lazy or ripping off its many action/sci-fi inspirations, chiefly The Matrix. John Woo is a producer on the movie and it’s not hard to see how a Woo-directed Monk would have played to its outlandish peaks. Instead, everything is an inferior version of the better reference point. It’s silly and worthy of a night with friends, adult beverages, and lots of boorish and increasingly incoherent commentary.
Looking back at my initial review from 2003, I think my criticisms still hold but I would elevate the grade simply from its unintentional entertainment value. This is pure unintended camp, and as such Bulletproof Monk might be one of the worst movies I’ve watched and still undeserving of a failing grade, and so I will charitably raise it a letter to a D grade (on a curve, a bullet curve).
Nate’s Grade: D
John Wick Chapter 4 (2023)
As many of you are well aware, I believe great action can be some of the highest cinematic highs one can experience through the transporting thrill of the movies. It’s the larger-than-life quality, the symbiosis of so many tactical teams working in harmony to pull off the breakneck stunts, rapidly escalating stakes, and organic story complications, that it all feels like the best kind of magic trick. For my money, Mad Max: Fury Road is closer to the pinnacle of the artform than a majority of self-serious Oscar bait drivel. In many ways, musicals are very similar to action movies, as fight choreography is nothing more than a rehearsed dance between professionals. Both must incorporate geography, spacing, and interaction to maximize their appeal. It is from this perspective that I approach the John Wick franchise, a series that I have enjoyed and has gotten more popular with every new entry. John Wick: Chapter 4 is about as action-packed as they come, running at nearly three hours long. I purposely waited and saw the movie with my father, a fellow lifelong lover of big screen action and particularly Fury Road. We both had a blast, and rather than write a review of exclamatory nonsense, I thought I’d look over some of my finer critical points with 2019’s John Wick 3 and analyze how 4 excels beyond.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a legendary assassin in a world where I think half the population are secretly, or not so secretly, trained assassins. I have to think the union collective bargaining negotiations are brutal. Regardless, John has been on the run ever since he upset the High Table, the cloak-and-dagger authority over this clandestine universe. He’s had a bounty on his head getting larger and larger with every foiled assassination, and there have been hundreds at this point. To finally clear his name, John plans on challenging the Marquis (Bill Skarsgard), the new controlling High Table member who is un-sanctioning every international hotel that gives refuge to Wick. The old rules state that Wick can challenge the Marquis to a duel, but getting to the actual dueling site might be murder.
As I wrote in 2019: “Most other action movies have one or two moments that make you wince or make you shake your head in astonishment of something intense, gnarly, or self-evidently awesome. John Wick 3 is packed with these moments… For action fans, the John Wick series is a simplified adrenaline shot where the director and star are working in unison to compose goose bump-triggering action cinema for the masses.”
This compliment is still applicable because the lasting draw of the John Wick franchise has always been its highly polished and intense action sequences. Series director Chad Stahelski has an intimate understanding of his star’s physical capabilities, having served as Reeves stunt double for years, and he and his team stress the fidelity of visceral realism with their overtly preposterous movie. The action is displayed in long takes, wide shots, and gloriously accessible visual arrangements to allow the audience to truly enjoy the splendor of the moment. This philosophy stretches to car chases, like an exciting roundabout of the Arc de Triomphe making bodies fly through the air, and even horseback chases, like an opening evoking Lawrence of Arabia. There were several moments that made me giggle in giddiness, like a woman relentlessly stabbing a man she rode piggyback up the stairs, and a sustained high angle where Wick clears room after room of baddies with fiery canisters that turn each target into a burst of flames, and a fight ascending many flights of stairs that has echoes of Wile E. Coyote slapstick. If you are a lover of action, these movies will not disappoint in that department. The movie takes about 30-40 minutes to set up its stakes and goals, and from there it’s relentless. The best compliment I can give is that Chapter 4 did not feel like three hours because it just flew by for me.
This is where my small criticisms of 2019’s third entry began, and I’ll address them one-by-one: “Because the movie rarely catches its collective breath, it can also feel like a mindless video game, with each new location a new level and with innumerable, faceless cohorts rushing in to be battled. The violence can be brutal but also feel a bit programmed, lacking some of the visceral dynamic realism of The Raid movies, the closest equivalent action franchise.”
This was a concern I was beginning to notice with Chapter 3, that the movies were in danger of becoming repetitive as Wick clears room after room of opponents. In general, that is the plot of all four movies, so the emphasis needs to be on how each sequence differentiates itself. Chapter 4 does this very well by giving every sequence its own underlying identity. This can be through unique locations or even weapon preference. One sequence is entirely John battling with nunchucks. One sequence is John fighting through a rainy Berlin club that becomes an ax fight. There’s a fight that utilizes well-placed doorbells to cue a blind swordsman Caine (Donnie Yen). The change in locations also helps differentiate the action sequences, with trips to Osaka, Berlin, and finally Paris each adding their own style. It’s a lot more fun to change things up and make sure that the change in scenery, weapon preference, and character is incorporated into the fight.
Another undervalued aspect of the Wick franchise is how damn good looking these movies are. Stahelski can frame some beautifully lit sequences to make all the subsequent carnage and fisticuffs that much more pleasing. We’ve been settling for far less for far too long, folks. There’s no reason our grungy, dank, overly gray action movies cannot look as pristine and striking as the John Wick series.
I also wrote in 2019: “The further and further we get from the events of the original John Wick, the less emotional involvement the series seems to ingratiate, especially with its central baddies onscreen. Every dog-loving audience member was willing Wick to get his vengeance in the first movie. We wanted him to get the bad guy in the sequel. Now it’s basically wave after wave of hired guns that he has to defeat, and without a better connection to that opposing force, the movie franchise runs the risk of losing any long standing personal stakes. The bad guys are just interchangeable and only present to be dispatched. There’s no emotional victory or satisfaction for the audience if Bad Guy #12 gets toppled by the climax.”
I was beginning to worry that by the time of John Wick 12 he would have killed the entire world’s population and forgotten it all started because of one dog. It’s not that story is the preeminent feature of the Wick franchise but there is more thought and curiosity put into this world building and it would be a shame to ignore it simply for wall-to-wall violence. Fortunately, I think Chapter 4 does the best about introducing new and engaging characters. The John Wick series has introduced new faces but rarely do they seem like more than overly glorified NPCs meant to root for John or take stock of the current predicament (they’ve never found a meaningful use of Laurence Fishburne). With Chapter 4, the new characters actually matter, and they’re great. The best addition is Caine, made even more intriguing by being a blind assassin and made even more fantastic through the performance of Yen (Rogue One, Ip Man). He’s a friend to John and feels great guilt about trying to kill him (his daughter’s life is threatened as leverage). He’s a conflicted killer, the rueful warrior, and his disability makes every fight worthy of watching how exactly he’ll take down his next opponent. It’s enough that I could foresee a Caine spinoff if the fortunes of the universe demand even more Wick spinoffs (Ballerina, a spinoff starring Ana de Armas, is expected to be released summer 2024).
The other new characters are also strong. Skarsgard (It) makes a great hiss-able villain and he really eats up his French dandy accent. There’s also Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson) who spies from afar, biding his time until the bounty on Wick gets high enough. He has a dog too that is trained to attack men in a very vulnerable spot first. Then there’s Scott Adkins (Ip Man 3) in perhaps the performance of his career. He gets to slather on makeup, a fat suit, false teeth, and really becomes a broad character, a German crime lord but more a menacing fairy tale behemoth. The way Adkins relishes every syllable is a delight. The man isn’t known much for his acting, other than his finely honed martial arts skills, but he showcases plenty of potential if given a chance. It’s fun to watch all these martial arts experts cut loose, most in their middle age. Recording artist Rina Sawayama makes a killer acting debut as the concierge of the Osaka Continental hotel, and she wreaks havoc with a bow and arrow and some intense knife work.
Because of having more interesting characters meaningfully involved, including those who have a familial history with John Wick, it brings a new emotional stakes to the franchise because we don’t know what will happen to these new faces. I cared enough to be newly invested.
And lastly, in 2019, I concluded with: “I’ll happily continue watching further adventures of John Wick, though I’d be just as interested in an exploration of the world without its titular star. At some point it may be necessary to retire John Wick (Reeves seems to have lost a step, but he’s still like a hundred steps beyond most of us) and when they do, I hope this interesting and peculiar world is allowed to house further weird and exciting adventures.”
By the end of Chapter 4, you question whether this universe can exist beyond the bloodshed of Mr. Wick, and my answer would be yes. A Continental TV series is premiering in the fall on Peacock, taking place in the 1970s with younger versions of Winston (Ian McShane) and Charon (the late Lance Reddick). There’s at least one spinoff in the works I’ve mentioned earlier. It very much appears that Reeves and Stahelski intended for Chapter 4 to be the definite conclusion to their story they began in 2014. I doubt things will stay that way, especially with Chapter 4 becoming the biggest earner in the franchise. I would suspect the studio would be begging for a Chapter 5. Regardless, if this is the intended series finale, then Reeves and Stahelski have gone out on top. John Wick: Chapter 4 is action movie nirvana.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)
Even after only two movies, I would trust the directing duo Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) with any movie. They have earned a lifetime pass from me. If these men can make the farting corpse of Harry Potter not just one of the weirdest movies of 2016, not just one of the best films of that year, but also one of the most insightful toward the human condition, then these men can do anything. It’s been six long years for a follow-up but it sure has been worth it. Everything Everywhere All At Once is, to be pithy, a whole lot of movie. Everything Everywhere (my preferred shorthand from here) is a miracle of a movie. It’s a wonder that something this bizarre, this wild, this juvenile, this ambitious, and this specific in vision could find its way through the dream-killing factory that is Hollywood moviemaking. This is the kind of movie you celebrate for simply existing, something so marvelously different but so assured, complex but accessible, and deliriously, amazingly creative. I’m throwing out a lot of adjectives and adverbs to describe the experience of this movie and that’s because it filled me with such sheer wonder and divine happiness. I am thankful that the Danirels are making their movies on their terms, and two movies into what I hope is a long and uncompromising career, I can tell that both of these gentlemen deserve all the accolades and plaudits they have coming. I’ll try my best not to sound like a simpering moron while I try to explain why this movie is so thoroughly outstanding.
Evelyn (Michelle Yeaoh) is a middle-aged Chinese immigrant who is taking stock of her disappointing life. She and her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), own a floundering coin-operated laundromat. They’re under audit by a dogged IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis). Evelyn’s disapproving father, Gong Gong (James Hong, still so great even into his 90s), has moved from China to live with the family, and he was never a fan of Waymond, looking down on his daughter for marrying the man. Then there’s Joy (Stephanie Hsu), Evelyn and Waymond’s twenty-something daughter, who wants to bring her girlfriend to dinner but mom still doesn’t accept her daughter’s queerness and uses the excuse of Gong Gong’s generational disapproval. Then, at the IRS agency, Waymond’s body is taken over by another Waymond, Alpha Waymond, who informs Evelyn that she is the key to saving a universe of universes, and she’ll have to tap into her alternate selves and their abilities to battle the evil destroyer, Jobu Tupaki, who wants to destroy all existence, and who also happens to be an alternate universe version of Joy.
Multiverses are definitely all the rage right now as they present nostalgic cash-grabs and cameos galore, but Everything Everywhere is a multiverse that is personal and specific. It’s based on all the paths the protagonist never took, and each allows her confirmation of what her life could have been, often more glamorous or exciting or initially appealing. A movie star. A famous singer. A ballerina. A skilled chef. Evelyn is a character paralyzed by the disappointment of her life’s choices, the malaise that has settled in, and the nagging feeling that things could have and should have been better. In one of the best jokes early on, Evelyn is told she’s the Chosen One not because she is special but because she is, literally, living the worst of all possible lives of the multiverse of Evelyns (then again the pinata Evelyn didn’t look like an upgrade). She has taken all the many bad paths and dead ends, but this positions her as the only one who has the power to tap into every other power and ability from her multiverse duplicates. It’s one thing to be feeling like you should have made a different choice in the past, and it’s another to get confirmation. This backhanded revelation could just serve as its own joke but it actually transforms into a philosophy that coalesces in the final act, that of all the universes and possibilities we could have had, the best one is the one we are actually present for. In another universe, one very much styled like In the Mood for Love, where a Waymond who was rejected by Evelyn long ago reconnects with her, mournful of what could have been, and says, “In another life, I would have really liked doing laundry and taxes with you,” in reference to Evelyn’s dismissive summation of what his unrequited romantic “what if” would have lead to. It’s such a poignant moment. By the end of the movie, it’s become a journey of self-actualization but tied to self-acceptance, where kindness and empathy are the real super weapons and the answer to the tumult of postmodern nihilism.
Smartly, the Daniels have made sure that a universe-hopping threat is actually connected to our hero in a meaningful manner. By making the villain an alternate version of Joy, it raises the stakes and forces Evelyn to have to confront her own parenting miscues and frayed relationship with her daughter. It’s the kind of decision-making that reinforces the emotional and thematic core of a movie that is spinning so fast that it feels like you might fall off and vomit new colors. Joy is an avatar of generational disconnect, inherited disappointment and resentment, but what really makes her relatable is the growing feeling of being over it all. Given the power to see everything in every universe, Joy concludes that life is overwhelming and without meaning. It’s the same sort of nihilism we might feel today as we doom scroll through our phones, eyes glazed over from the barrage of bad news, outraged click bait, and feeling of abject helplessness while the world spins on in an uncertain direction. It’s not hard to feel, as Joy, that it’s all too much to bear, and if she can experience everything then does it present value to anything? If she can always just sidestep to another universe, what does that do to the value of life? That’s the ethical conundrum with Rick and Morty, a show where they can swap characters from other dimensions to fix more costly mistakes. What Daniels attempts with Everything Everywhere is to tackle the same question but approaching a different answer: that despite everything, life matters, our relationships matter, and kindness and empathy matter most. Watching Evelyn and Joy, and their many different versions of mother and daughter, try to reach an understanding, it’s easy to feel that struggle and relate to wanting to feel seen. As Evelyn encouragingly says to one character at their lowest point, “It is too much to handle, yes. But nobody is ever alone.”
This is a dozen different kinds of movies, all smashed together, and each of them is utterly delightful and skillfully realized and executed. If you like martial arts action, there are some excellent fight sequences including a showstopper where Waymond wrecks a team of security guards with a fanny pack. The action is exciting and the martial arts choreography is impressive and filmed in a pleasing style that allows us to really appreciate the moves and countermoves. If you like wild comedies, there are many outlandish moments that combine low-humor and highbrow references. I’ll simply refer to one as finding payoffs for IRS auditor trophies shaped like butt plugs. This is one of the funniest American comedies in years. If you like family dramas, there is plenty of conflict across the board between Evelyn and Waymond and Joy, plus the specter of Gong Gong, and each person trying to communicate their dissatisfaction and desires for a better life. If you removed all of the crazy sci-fi elements, googly eyes, people’s heads turning to confetti, and what have you, this would still be a compelling human drama. When the movie isn’t working through ridiculous tangents, or eye-popping action, or a staggering combination of kitsch and intelligence, it’s building out its emotional core, the heart of the movie, the thing that makes all the gee-whiz fun matter, the family in flux. Likewise, this is a powerfully optimistic movie, life-affirming in all the best ways without being pandering, and one that is without any flash of ironic condescension. Sincerity is powerful and all over.
The movie is elevated even higher by the strength of the performances. Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians) has spent decades as a martial arts master, and of late she’s been branching out in more demanding dramas, but this is easily the finest performance of her career for nothing less than playing a dozen different characters. She is sensational. The early Evelyn is full of despair and regret, and as she gets to explore each new version of herself, there’s an excitement that’s bristling, as she gets to see the successes she could have been and celebrate. Yeaoh is hilarious and deeply affecting in the central role and still very much a badass. She showcases starting range, it makes you weep that she has never gotten to play so many different kinds of roles because she’s so good at all of them. Hsu (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) is the wounded soul, and her sneers and seen-it-all attitude are killer without losing track of the pain at the core of the character. Her emotional confrontations with her mother still hit hard. But the secret weapon of this movie is Quan, the former child actor best remembered as playing Data in The Goonies and Short Round in Temple of Doom. Yes, that same actor. He too gets to play such a wide, wild variety of Waymonds, from the doting and meek husband, to the confidant warriors, to the smoldering former flame, but with each new Waymond, Quan makes you fall in love with the original more. The character of Waymond and his central philosophy of kindness is so moving and needed, that we almost get to fall in love and re-evaluate this man the same way Evelyn does. Also of note, Curtis (Knives Out) is having an absolute blast as her menacing IRS agent.
It’s truly amazing to me that a movie can have some of the silliest, craziest, dumbest humor imaginable, and then find ways to tie it back thematically and make it yet another important thread that intricately ties into the overall impact of the movie. The genius of Daniels is marrying the most insane ideas with genuine pathos. Take for instance that one of the many multiverses involves people with hot dogs instead of fingers. It’s a goofy visual, and it could simply have been that, a passing moment to make you smile, but the Daniels don’t stop there. They continue developing their ideas, all of their ideas, and find additional jokes and purposes few could. Okay, so this is a big divergence from history, so how could humans evolve to have hot dogs for fingers? Well the movie actually showcases this moment in a hilarious 2001: A Space Odyssey reference. And then the film says, “Well, if this was the way of life, what other practices would evolve from here when it comes to communication and intimacy?” It’s that level of development and commitment that blows me away. The same with what starts as Evelyn’s misunderstanding of the Pixar movie Ratatouille. It works just as a joke in the moment, but then it comes back as its own reality, and even that reality has a thematic resonance by the end. This level of imagination, to take the weirdest jokes and make them meaningful, is special. In one second, I can cry laughing from a raccoon and in the next second a rock can make me want to cry. In essence, even though Everything Everywhere is beyond stuffed, nothing is merely disposable.
That doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t also fall victim to repetition at points. My only criticism, and it might even be eliminated entirely after a second viewing, is that Daniels can over indulge when it comes to their narrative points. Some things can get stretched out, so that they hit points with five beats when three could have been sufficient. It’s this kind of mentality that pushes the running time to almost two hours and twenty minutes, which feels a bit extended. However, the messiness and overstuffed nature of the movie is also one of its hallmarks, so I don’t know if this criticism will even register for many, especially if you’re fully on board their wacky wavelength.
If you can, please go into Everything Everywhere All At Once knowing as little as possible. The carousel of surprise and amazement is constant, but the fact that there is a strong emotional core, that all the many stray elements become perfectly braided together, no matter how ridiculous, is all the more impressive. This is stylized filmmaking that is very personal while also being accessible and universal in its existential pains and longing. It’s style and substance and exhilarating and genius and emotionally cathartic and moving and everything we want with movies. It’s the kind of movie that reignites your passion for cinema, the kind that delivers something new from the studio system, and the kind that deserves parades in celebration. Simply put, as I said before, this is a miracle of a movie, and you owe it to yourself to feel this blessing.
Nate’s Grade: A
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
After dominating the cinemas for over the last decade, Marvel took 2020 off thanks to that great menace even its own superheroes couldn’t overpower. Now in 2021, we’re eager for those big popcorn thrills of old, of a time before lockdowns and denials and vaccine misinformation. There’s a gauntlet of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies coming down the chute, including The Eternals (November), Spider-Man 3 (December), Doctor Strange 2 (March), Thor 4 (May), Black Panther 2 (July), and Captain Marvel 2 (November). That’s eight movies from July 2021 to November 2022, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings might just be the one that has the least recognition with the general public (I had never heard of him, sorry). And yet, I entered a theater for the first time in two months to see Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster on the big screen, and as the MCU’s first foray into the fantastical world of martial arts epics, Shang-Chi is a mostly agreeable success in the realm of expert face punching.
Shang-Chi (Simu Lei) is the son of a very dangerous and powerful man, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), who has lived for thousands of years thanks to the power of ten magic rings that give him tremendous power to annihilate armies. Shang-Chi ran away as a teenager, leaving his sister Xialing (Meng-er Zhang) behind. She sends word requesting her brother’s assistance; dear old dad is on the warpath, and the two siblings might be the only ones who can stop him. Shang-Chi, living as Shawn in San Francisco, is trying to avoid larger responsibility as a valet with his good pal Katy (Awkwafina). However, he cannot ignore the assassins his father has sent, and so he and Katy travel back to China to regroup with Shang-Chi’s sister and face his destiny.
This is the most fantasy-heavy movie of a universe that previously defined the magic from the Thor universe as just another advanced form of science. The entire third act looks like it’s taking place in Narnia itself; legitimately, the color palate and overly lit, CGI-assisted green landscapes reminded me so much of the 2005 adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ novel. Within the extended prologue over the history of the ten rings, the movie is acclimating you toward its larger-than-life universe that it treats with sincerity and graceful appreciation. The courtship of Shang-Chi’s parents is handled in that flirt-fight style reminiscent in classic martial arts films, and the balletic wire work and dreamy slow-motion, set to the soothing flute-heavy musical score, evokes romantic memories of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Very early on, the work goes into convincing you that Marvel is taking this assignment seriously, and I appreciated that assurance and the follow-through. From a pure filmmaking standpoint, Shang-Chi works as a martial arts action film because it’s filmed and edited like one should be. The camerawork is vividly fluid and consistently roaming around the space of battle to better showcase the choreography and effort of the performers. The editing is also likewise very smooth and patient, with lots of longer takes blending together so that we can see multiple moves and counter moves, and if there are throws, we’ll travel with the fighters to continue the fight. I enjoyed a fight taking place on multiple levels of scaffolding. It all made my girlfriend nauseated in our theater, so you might be affected as well if you have a susceptibility to cinematic motion sickness. This movie allows you in on the martial arts fun.
I wasn’t expecting this kind of leap from co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton. This man was responsible for one of the best films of 2013, and the 2010s-decade, Short Term 12, which starred (drumroll please) future Oscar-winner Brie Larson, future Oscar-winner Rami Malek, future Oscar-nominee LaKeith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn 99, In the Heights) and the best-known actor at the time of release, John Gallagher Jr. (HBO’s The Newsroom). Wow that cast is an all-timer. This is like the Millennial Outsiders with a cast of up-and-coming actors who have gone on to ascendant and award-winning careers. It’s also a hard-hitting, deeply emotional and upending movie worth your time. Cretton has stuck to adult dramas based upon real stories of people struggling through the justice system (Just Mercy) and parental dysfunction (The Glass Castle). A big-budget martial arts epic I wasn’t expecting, and perhaps the Marvel Machine makes it easy for indie auteurs to plug right in, but it feels like Cretton clearly has an affection and at least a tacit understanding of favorable stylistic genre choices. At this point I shouldn’t discount what filmmakers can make those big artistic leaps with a studio project. James Gunn can go from Super to the Guardians of the Galaxy, and so Cretton can go from Short Term 12 to helming a large-scale, CGI-heavy martial arts fantasy.
Another aspect I found pleasantly surprising was the amount of work put into its primary villain and the ensuring father/son dynamic. I’m not going to say that Xu Wenwu, a.k.a. The Real Mandarin, is one of the more complicated or nuanced villains in MCU history, but he’s given more dimension than a simple “destroy and/or conquer the world” motivation. In fact, that was the motivation for the man before he met Jiang Li (Fela Chen), Shang-Chi’s eventual mother. Real Mandarin (or RN as I’ll refer to him because I’m lazy) was going about the whole conquer and raze kingdoms thing for thousands of years, establishing another one of those all-powerful yet still clandestine and very vague shadow societies pulling the levers of power. He found a person who made him want to reform, to put his old ways of violence behind, and it’s her death that spurs him back to his views of power absolving all conflicts, so the most powerful is the one who can have the most say and protect the people close to him or her. If he had the full power of those ten rings, ordinary gangsters wouldn’t have dared to threaten or harm his loved ones. He trained his son to follow by example, and despite the fact that he sent trained killers after his son rather than a more constructive and clearer message, RN declares his love for his children. He is moving forward to return his beloved back to the land of the living. Being motivated by grief and wanting to see a departed loved one no matter the cost is a relatable struggle and one that brings degrees of nuance that Leung can imbue with his great pained, hangdog expressions. Having a father be the villain but still love his children and be primarily motivated by bringing back his dead wife and honestly assessing how she made him a better person is a breath of fresh-ish air.
Liu (Kim’s Convenience) is easily charming and demonstrates a sharp affinity for the martial arts training and choreography. With the longer takes and clean edits, it’s clear that Liu is performing many of the moves, and he moves with great skill and balance to believably crack some skulls. A fight aboard a city bus is our real intro into seeing this man as he’s avoided, as a well-trained fighting machine, the identity of his father that he’s been attempting to run away from. Liu has a self-effacing charm to him that doesn’t cross over into smug. Awkwafina (The Farewell) is her reliable comic relief asset, though too often the movie resorts to just spotlighting her for a riff or one-liner when the context doesn’t provide the opportunity. It’s rather mystifying why her supporting character, a normal human, would accompany her pal into the word of underground martial arts ninja conspiracy fantasy, let alone that she could take up a bow and arrow and becomes a valuable member of a fighting force. Leung (2046, The Grandmaster) is just movie royalty, so getting him to read the phone book would have been an acceptable start. He sits out for long periods and his absence is noted. He brings such a heaviness, a quiet yet dignified despondency to the character, and there are several instances where he undersells his character’s danger and power, which just makes him so much more intimidating. I feel like Leung is finding connections with the somber, brooding heartache of his War Kong Wai roles, and yes film nerds, I just made that connection for a Marvel movie.
Not everything quite works in this MCU outing. There are several jumps in the screenplay that feel like further revision or clarity were necessary. I don’t really know why Shang-Chi is finally able to take on his father at the end except for some abstract concept of, I guess, believing in himself more. The power of the rings feels a little too unexplored for deserving of the movie’s subtitle. The rings come almost as an afterthought for much of the movie. There are a few moments where I was trying to connect how characters understood what they were supposed to do in any given moment, and I just gave up, which is kind of what the film also feels like it’s doing. There are clear characters included with the sole decision to sell merchandise. I don’t know if the nation’s children will be screaming for a faceless winged furry ottoman but that’s the gamble Marvel execs took and by God, you’re going to get many appearances. The sister addition to the movie feels decidedly undernourished, like she’s drafting from the father/son relationship that’s getting all the narrative attention. It feels like occasionally the movie pans to her to nod and go, “Oh yeah, me too.” The visual color palate is so brightly colored for so long, and then once the big splashy Act Three battle commences between CGI good and CGI evil, the visuals become so grey and murky and definitely hard to keep track of in the scrum. I wish the fantasy rules were more streamlined and explored rather than feeling grafted on when needed and forgotten when inconvenient, but this is their first foray into this sub-genre of action and while Marvel doesn’t need a sliding scale at this point, it’s still a moderate achievement.
Look, this isn’t exactly The Raid or Ip Man or anything that will challenge the most heart-pounding, intense, acrobatic heights of the crossover martial arts epic. Consider it a solid effort at watering down a Hero or House of Flying Daggers and switching over to the typical Marvel formula final act complete with onslaught of weightless CGI. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a fun action movie that does just enough right to land it in the cushy middle-of-the-middle for the annuls of the MCU (I would rank it around the level of Black Panther). The fight choreography and presentation, as well as the exploration of the father/son dynamics, are surprisingly refined, which is good considering one provides the entertainment value for the eyes and the other the emotional connection for everything to matter more than flashes of punches and kicks and fireballs. It doesn’t transcend its genre or the tried-and-true Marvel formula, but it’s packed with enough to even keep a casual fan entertained for most of its 130 minutes. It’s more of a one-off that doesn’t require extensive knowledge of the two dozen other MCU titles, so Shang-Chi might be just the right Saturday morning cartoon of a movie to introduce new people to the larger world of Marvel movies.
Nate’s Grade: B
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.
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-
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
The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)
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-
The Raid: Redemption (2012)
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+
The Last Airbender (2010)
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
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