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Posts Tagged ‘Destin Daniel Cretton’

One of the nice things about Marvel Comics, back in the days of my youth, was how diverse they were. I mean this not in the slightly reductionist modern sense, where it is often just a question of ticking boxes during the scripting and casting stages, but in terms of the tone and subject matter of the comics themselves. When I was about seven my mother bought me a discounted three-pack of different Marvel titles as a holiday treat. One of them was about Spider-Man and Ghost Rider fighting an evil magician in an amusement park; the next was a grandiose underwater piece of high fantasy with Namor the Sub-Mariner; and the third was something rather unexpected, a book entitled (in full) The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, which seemed to be some sort of spy adventure with a lot of pulp influences and Asian cultural references.

Master of Kung Fu seemed to be happening in its own little world, completely separate to the other Marvel books (though the character ended up fighting the Thing, amongst other superhero characters), but it seems we have now reached the point where Marvel Studios have already made movies about every other character with any kind of traction, and so even outliers like Master of Kung Fu are now getting the big-screen treatment – Eternals, due out in a couple of months, is likewise based on a book not originally intended to share a universe with Spider-Man and all the others. (I once made a joke about Marvel doing movies based on characters like Squirrel-Girl and Brother Voodoo; it now just feels like it’s only a matter of time.)

And so I found myself in the foyer of a bijou cinema in the depths of Somerset, asking for a ticket for the evening showing of Shang-Chi – and until a few years ago I would have never expected to ever be typing that sentence. The full title of the film is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and the director is Destin Daniel Cretton, who got the job off the back of the (rather good) legal drama Just Mercy.

Our hero is played by Simo Liu, who is an amiable screen presence, and when we first meet him he is living in San Francisco and working as a parking valet along with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), who is there to do the ironic comedy relief. Neither of them have figured out what to do with their lives yet, but destiny (not to mention Destin) gives them a little push when they are menaced on the bus by a gang of toughs led by a chap named Razor Fist (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu). ‘I don’t want any trouble!’ cries Shang-Chi in the time-honoured chop-socky manner, but the bad guys do want trouble, and so it behoves our lad to break out his invincible kung fu skills.

Yes, it seems he is a parking valet with a past: son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), an immortal warlord who is possessor of the ten rings of the title: as well as letting him live for a thousand years, they also make him unstoppable in battle (except when the plot requires it to be otherwise). Shang-Chi was raised by his father’s criminal empire to become the perfect warrior and assassin, but he threw a bit of a teenage strop and ran away to America instead.

But now it seems his dad wants a reunion. Wenwu is seeking to gain access to Ta Ro, a magical realm in another dimension filled with fantastic sights and mythical creatures (not to be confused with K’Un-Lun from the Iron Fist TV show, a magical realm in another dimension filled with fantastical sights and mythical creatures, of course, or indeed any of the vaguely similar locales in the other movies), from whence his wife (and our hero’s mum) came from. Wenwu’s children have a role to play in this scheme, but what is it? And why is Wenwu so determined to reach Ta Ro? Could the survival of the universe be in peril, again?

Master of Kung Fu’s nature as a book only tangentially linked to the rest of Marvel’s output was exemplified by the fact it featured characters heavily implied to be the descendants of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, while Shang-Chi’s original father (dear me, only when writing about comic book universes to you end up using formulations like ‘original father’) was the fiendish Dr Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer’s diabolical mastermind and racist stereotype as featured in many novels and movies. Then again, at various points Marvel’s sprawling cosmology has included such improbable inhabitants (mostly licensed from other sources) as Godzilla, Dracula, the Transformers, and the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (the monolith’s own comic book series was not a big seller for some reason).

These days, of course, you can’t really do a movie with Fu Manchu as the bad guy, to save nothing of the rights issues involved, and so Shang-Chi’s parentage has been tweaked. This has been quite inventively done: the Ten Rings have been a story element in these films since the very beginning, and Tony Leung’s character seems to be at least in part an attempt to placate that small segment of the Marvel audience annoyed with the presentation of the Mandarin back in Iron Man 3. This is done deftly enough that it shouldn’t feel too weird or fussy to normal people in the audience, but I have to say that some of the links and cameos connecting this movie to the wider Marvel enterprise feel rather gratuitous and contrived this time around.

Nevertheless, it eventually becomes very clear that a Marvel movie is what this is – if I were to be reductionist myself, I would say that it’s clearly trying to emulate the success of Black Panther, although using Chinese culture rather than Afro-futurism as its starting point. I thought this was rather a shame – the first act or so of the film, which actually resembles a genuine kung fu movie, is superbly entertaining, with good jokes and inventive action choreography. However, it slowly transforms into what’s basically just another CGI-based fantasy spectacle, becoming slightly bland and heftless along the way. The issue with traditional Chinese culture is that it’s a real thing, and everyone involved seems to have been very wary of doing anything that might cause offence (they likely had one eye on the potentially vast Asian box office returns too), and the film loses a lot of its wit and pop as a result.

Still, a great deal of goodwill has been built up by this point, and Michelle Yeoh pops up to do some exposition as Shang-Chi’s auntie, so the film remains very watchable till the end. But you can see why the film’s not called Master of Kung Fu – there’s not much sign of that in the closing stages of the film, which I was a bit disappointed by. Master of the CGI Special Effects Budget is a less engaging proposition.

This is a fun film and unlikely to disappoint the legions of devotees Marvel have gathered to their banner over the last decade-and-a-bit; the action and humour are all present and correct, and Tony Leung in particular manages to give the film a bit of gravitas and depth (on one level this is another saga of a dysfunctional Asian family) But on the other hand, one of the main alleged weaknesses of the Marvel films, the fact that they are all ultimately a bit samey, is also arguably on display: no matter how quirkily and originally they start out, everything always concludes with a slightly bloated climax slathered in visual effects. But as long as these films continue to make such immense piles of money, this is unlikely to change. Shang-Chi isn’t as distinctive as it promised to be, but it’s still an engaging piece of entertainment.

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To begin at the end, just for a change:

‘Can I just mention,’ I said to the multiplex minions on the way out of the building, ‘that I saw a mouse this evening?’

‘A mouse? Where?’

‘Up in screen three.’

‘Where in screen three?’

‘Right there.’

This was turning into an old Ronnie Hilton song, and I attempted to head off this unwelcome development. ‘It was scurrying down the aisle in the middle of the movie. I don’t think it had a ticket.’ The last part probably wasn’t necessary, in hindsight.

Now, if I were running a cinema, the existence of rodents running amuck in the auditoria would be a cause of some concern for me, but the minons looked amused more than anything else, and not particularly inclined to do anything. They thanked me for raising the issue but did not look particularly inclined to break out the elephant gun, or indeed the butterfly nets.

Then again it seemed to be weird behaviour night at the Odeon, for quite apart from the staff being on the happy pills and our four-legged-friend acting like it owned the place, I distinctly saw one person sitting on top of another in the back row of the same screen we were in. God knows the seats at Odeon are not always great, but even so. It was almost enough to distract one from Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, which would have been a regrettable occurrence.

The movie is another of those based-on-a-true-story dramas which we tend to get a lot of at this time of year. In this case the story mostly takes place in Alabama, in the late eighties and early nineties. Michael B Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, an idealistic young lawyer fresh out of Harvard, who – despite the understandable misgivings of certain family members – heads down to the state to set up an agency specialising in giving legal support to prisoners who have no other access to it. It almost goes without saying that this meets with a certain degree of resistance from some of the locals (they have trouble getting office space, and so on). Assisting him in this is a dedicated local woman, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson).

One of the men who Stevenson encounters is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), on death row after being convicted of the murder of a young white woman. McMillian is a bitter man who has surrendered to despair after being very ill-served by his court-appointed lawyers, but Stevenson quickly becomes convinced that McMillian’s conviction is profoundly unsound – the case for the prosecution was founded on the evidence of a felon, offered in return for a deal, while the testimony of dozens of McMillian’s friends and family providing him with an alibi was not even considered in court. Proving his innocence would seem to be a relatively straightforward matter – but there is a deep-seated resistance to re-opening the case, and institutional prejudice in the D.A.’s office and the sheriff’s department. Does justice still mean anything in this part of America?

Truth be told, I turned up to Just Mercy quite prepared to be very glib and cynical about it – I believe I may even have referred to it a little dismissively in passing as ‘a quality drama in which a young lawyer confronts racial prejudice’ and as being part of a slew of ‘social justice movies about the Black experience in contemporary America’, the subtext being that this was a fairly calculated attempt to create something that feels timely, with the right kind of political stance. And to some extent it is exactly this kind of movie, which has certainly appeared in cinemas at just the right time to potentially draw awards attention.

You can certainly sense the film trying to position itself, not least as part of a feted tradition of American movies about racial issues in the southern states: Just Mercy repeatedly namechecks To Kill a Mockingbird, and there is certainly a touch of In the Heat of the Night to the various scenes in which Jordan clashes with the local establishment. Other elements of it do feel just a little too much like studio Hollywood – Tim Blake Nelson comes on and delivers an arguably slightly overcooked performance as an eccentric felon, and Rafe Spall is a touch too weaselly as the District Attorney opposing a review of the case. Brie Larson has been issued with a somewhat unflattering hairstyle and is doing a thick accent, which are basically signs this is the sort of ‘character’ performance with the potential to get a comely young actress nominated for things.

And yet, and yet. As mentioned, I turned up fully prepared to keep my distance, decode the movie’s political anglings, keep track of the boxes it was ticking, and so on – but rather to my surprise, I very quickly found myself being thoroughly drawn into the story and actually coming to care about the characters and their situation. I have very little explanation for this other than the fact that the film falls back on traditional film-making virtues like a well-written script, strong performances, and capable direction. It also treats the viewer with intelligence, which shouldn’t be worthy of a mention but sadly is. There is not one element of the film which is openly flashy or attention-grabbing or gimmicky, but as a whole it works highly effectively: the film is powerful and moving while remaining, for the most part, understated.

In the middle of it all is Michael B Jordan, who gives an excellent performance. Jordan has been turning up and doing good work in all manner of movies for the last few years, and here he gets to lead a big, serious film, and does so with impressive aplomb. He brings strength, dignity and nobility to the part, without overdoing any of these things; he also manages to project vulnerability and occasional naivety at the same time. As the film goes on there is a tendency for him just to be given a lot of speechifying to do, but he even handles this very well. He shows every sign of becoming a significant figure in mainstream American cinema.

In the end this is a film about racial tensions in contemporary America (although there is a convenient distancing effect provided by the fact it’s set over a quarter of a century ago), which also has things to say about the grotesqueness of capital punishment. But it works so well because it focuses on the characters as human beings, rather than openly being about a theme or having a particular message to give. By the time the film does put its cards on the table, at the very end, it has earned your attention and guaranteed you listen to what it has to say. This is still not the most original movie around on this theme at the moment, but it is still one of high quality and well worth your time.

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