@synth_cinema: Review Roundup - Ring Out

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Review Roundup - Ring Out

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (2021)

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe constantly shifting to include magical dimensions and space travel, it was inevitable that they'd try to incorporate genre elements from Wuxia cinema. Kung-fu had been toyed with in their television shows after all. But this time it's definitely aiming for less realism and more fantasy. There's no longer any reason to make this grounded, and they have the budget to go beyond Luke Cage and Daredevil. This is more in the vein of Doctor Strange. For better or worse this is a movie which starts with hand-to-hand combat and ends with dragon-on-dragon monster action. It's hardly on par with the kind of action sequences from the classic days of Golden Harvest, but it's not entirely without merit.

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) runs away from home after being trained as a killer by his father, the immortal warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung) aka The Mandarin. But his family ties catch up with him, and soon he's forced to go on the run with his best friend Katy (Awkafina.) Along the way he's forced to make up for abandoning his sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) and must face his destiny in the magical realm of Ta Lo. It's a pretty basic origin structure which has plenty of reluctant hero and fish out of water elements. It's also a move brimming with flashbacks and expository dialogue, most of which works before it starts to wear thin. You've seen this all before, even if you haven't watched a slew movies from South East Asia from Zu Warriors to Detective Dee.

How many of those influences are refined and repurposed to make them something new? That's debatable. Purely from an action standpoint this is all very much okay. There's less shaky camera work than your average Marvel Studios production at least. But there's a lot of unconvincing green screen effects in sequences that should have been far grittier. The bus sequence in Nobody worked because it was full of broken glass and painful injuries. Here the fight is solid enough, but it never feels real when the visual effects could be from any other movie in this franchise. There's nothing to set it apart from set pieces in Captain Marvel or Ant-Man and the Wasp. Franchise fatigue is real when everything is so bland and weightless.

This issue is compounded as things go on. A skyscraper battle is full of digital doubles flipping around, and the land of Ta Lo is full of animated creature effects. By the time it becomes a face off between tiny people composited against giant monsters the whole thing falls apart. There's nothing to distinguish the climactic battle from any recent effects fuelled Chinese blockbuster. Perhaps this is intentional, but I'd prefer a personal duel with real stunts over this swirling mess of water and smoke simulations any day. There's just not enough personality in the film, which would have at least made these sequences less drab looking. When you've got characters called things like Razor Fist and Death Dealer, why not focus on them during the finale?

The human element does at least have time to breathe elsewhere. There's a surprising amount of time given to Wenwu and his villainous past. This is probably because of the casting of Tony Leung, who gets plenty to do and brings plenty of screen presence to the role. Continuing the MCU tradition of the best villains being evil fathers, his character doesn't have a huge amount of depth. But there's enough tragic romance and ruthless ambition to keep things interesting. Again, the number of flashbacks eventually starts to feel unnecessary, but it's interesting to see someone like this fleshed out. It helps the film that his adversaries include minor roles for action veterans Michelle Yeoh and Yuen Wah. They don't get much do to, but it's fun to see them in a feature like this.

The main heroes on the other hand are kind of a mixed bag. Shang-Chi is stoic and reserved, leaning heavily into the archetype. Perhaps this is another reason that his parents are given so much screen time. There's nothing particularly bad about the performance, but there's also not enough charisma on show to make him memorable. His sidekick Katy is the inverse of this trope, a loud risk taker who provides plenty of energy to the proceedings. It's interesting that they're never romantically linked, but at the same time perhaps some extra passion would make this more compelling. Meanwhile is sister Xialing is all backstory and zero charm. She has her moments but it seems as though it's mostly sequel set up.

As usual this is a mixture of quips and action, with the comic relief increasing when the gang reaches Wenwu's compound to find a familiar face being held captive. Other Marvel characters also make brief cameos along the way, to ensure brand continuity and establish future story hooks. If only the final confrontation was a character driven as the earlier dialogue scenes. If only the thousand year old bad guy had more to say about his past. If only this was a real wire-fu spectacular instead of another washed out looking adventure. It's certainly a high point for the current phase of this mega-franchise, but that isn't a high bar to meet. They'll have to try much harder if things are to be less dull in the future.

3/5

BONUS REVIEW
MORTAL KOMBAT (2021)

This on the other hand has a certain amount of charm, but it's too convoluted and too dumb to offer any genuine fun. You know there's trouble ahead when there is not one but two potential character conflicts, and the writers focus on a tedious hero's journey instead. The murder of cursed ninja Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his family by evil warrior Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) should be enough. In case it's not there's also the origin story of Shaolin heroes Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang.) Perhaps these memorable characters will break the videogame adaptation curse? They have fun designs and great gimmicks. Or perhaps, as usual, the movie will dance around the source material just to throw in a bunch of new brain-dead ideas.

The actual story revolves around underdog fighter Cole (Lewis Tan) and his journey find the heroes of Earthrealm. There's a lot of time spent on how these characters learn their magical abilities, and a lot of talk about mysterious birthmarks. Why the focus is on getting these abilities, instead of them just being used in a fun movie, is the real mystery. There are elements lifted straight from the arcade machines, but the overarching narrative is just too boring. Souls are sucked, limbs are smashed, and heads are split. If only the film surrounding these moments was engrossing. Josh Lawson as sinister mercenary Kano (now Australian instead of English?) tries to help by chewing the scenery at every opportunity. But it's not enough to elevate the rest of the writing.

It's weird but the dumb 1995 at least had a more evenly spread amount of cheesy charisma. Why not remake that version more closely with a bigger budget? Instead it's a strange mess of new and old ideas. The mentor figure Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) is here but he's never utilised until the plot needs a wild game changing super power. The villain Shang Tsung (Chin Han) is also here, but he spends most of the film sat in front of a green screen instead of doing any actual moustache twirling. A large number of other characters, new and old, are included. But the roster lacks balance and they're sidelined so that Cole and his domestic drama can be explored. If the action was shot well instead of being cut to ribbons the results might be less egregious. In the end it's a bloody mess for the wrong reasons.

2/5