Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings review

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast : Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Tony Leung, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, Ronny Chieng
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 132 min
Opens : 1 September
Rating : PG13

We are now into Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Post-Avengers: Endgame, it seemed like audiences would lose interest in the sprawling franchise, but while some have, there is still a lot to keep others invested. With TV series on Disney+ and many movies on the slate, the MCU is moving in various directions, one of those directions being the wuxia-inspired realm of Shang-Chi.

Shaun (Simu Liu) lives in San Francisco, working as a hotel valet alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). Shaun hides a secret: he is actually Shang-Chi, the son of ruthless warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung). Armed with ancient artifacts called the Ten Rings, Wenwu has moved in the shadows for centuries. He had thought his endless need for conquest would come to an end after meeting Ying Li (Fala Chen) in the magical land of Ta Lo. Wenwu and Ying Li had two children, Shang-Chi and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). However, tragedy brought Wenwu back to the violence of his past. Now, Shang-Chi must confront what he has spent half his life running away from, as he and Katy get drawn into an epic battle involving criminal empires, magical creatures and lots and lots of martial arts.

It is perfectly understandable that many audiences were apprehensive of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. After all, it’s very easy to cynically view this as solely a bid for Asian moviegoers’ money and nothing more. Also, there have been many films aimed at appealing to both Asian and American audiences that have faceplanted embarrassingly, including The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Dragon Blade and The Great Wall.

Shang-Chi avoids practically all of those pitfalls.

This is an immersive, entertaining adventure that is largely bereft of the samey-samey feel which MCU movies can carry, and which plagued this year’s Black Widow to a certain extent. While there still is a reliance on the ‘chosen one’ origin story formula, Shang-Chi introduces myriad elements to the mix which we haven’t seen done quite like this before. Director Destin Daniel Cretton displays a healthy amount of reverence for classic wuxia movies. While purists will nitpick the action in this film, most of it is truly spectacular, choreographed beautifully and not shot with shaky-cam or hyper-edited to death. The late Brad Allan, who is the second unit director and supervising stunt coordinator on this film, was one of Australia’s top wushu athletes and a long-time member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. There is every effort made to deliver beautiful action, and unlike in some MCU movies where it can feel like the action scenes are disjointed from the rest of the movie, everything flows well here. In addition to the martial arts-centric sequences, there’s an entertaining runaway bus setpiece that nods to 90s action films like Speed and The Rock.

While Simu Liu has a background as a stuntman and has trained in Taekwondo and Wing Chun, he sometimes feels like the least convincing fighter in the film. He has clearly worked very hard to learn and execute the choreography, but especially when compared to Arnold Sun, who plays Shang-Chi as a 14-year-old, it doesn’t fully feel like Shang-Chi has been training his entire life. Perhaps that can be explained away by how he has spent ten years in hiding.

A problem with many Marvel films and indeed many present-day action blockbusters is that the final action sequence is very heavily reliant upon CGI, and goes on for a bit too long, such that one is wont to tune out. Amusingly, the climactic battle revolves around closing a portal, something which the earlier Marvel movies have often been mocked for, but there is a bit of a twist put on it. Some may also roll their eyes at the “dead wife” motivation, but this reviewer feels it is a justified plot point here.

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Marvel Studios have typically been great at casting, and Shang-Chi is no exception. Simu Liu and Awkwafina are actors who might typically be relegated to playing sidekicks, and both step up to the leading roles very well. Liu has an earnestness to him and the early scenes of Shang-Chi and Katy hanging out make them seem like people whom we would want to be friends with.

Relative newcomer Meng’er Zhang displays excellent physicality and a convincing woundedness behind exterior strength as Xialing, who was always relegated to the sidelines while Wenwu focused on Shang-Chi. Zhang met her husband, action designer Yung Lee, on the set of the film. Florian Munteanu, who played Viktor Drago in Creed II, makes for an adequately intimidating henchman as Razorfist. Michelle Yeoh is elegant and has gravitas to spare, making a meal of some potentially unwieldy exposition. There’s also an appearance from an MCU character which is a great surprise if one doesn’t know they’re going to be in Shang-Chi.


Tony Leung is truly incredible. It was a valid concern that he would just be there for the sake of saying “we’ve got Tony Leung,” but the Wenwu part is a substantial one and is easily one of the greatest MCU villains yet, even though that is a low bar to clear. One of the big selling points of the film is that this is the venerable Hong Kong actor’s long-awaited Hollywood debut. Wenwu reminded this reviewer of Vincent D’onofrio’s Wilson Fisk in the Daredevil series: he does monstrous things, but we come to understand what made him this way. In his earliest comics appearances Shang-Chi was literally the son of Fu Manchu, and the movie addresses the outmoded orientalism inherent in the source material. The name “Wenwu” comes from the Chinese idiom 文武双全 (wén wǔ shuāng quán), roughly meaning “master of pen and sword,” reflecting how Wenwu is both an intellectual and physical force. Wenwu is a modified take on the Iron Man villain the Mandarin. The portrayal of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 proved to be controversial, and that is acknowledged here in a clever way.

Representation is a tricky thing, because no one piece of media can speak for a multitude of communities. There are many East Asian communities and indeed many Chinese communities around the world, and Shang-Chi can’t be expected to tell everyone’s story. However, there is an effort made here to infuse a certain amount of authenticity into the story and especially the dialogue. When the characters speak in Mandarin Chinese, which they do roughly 40% of the time, it doesn’t feel like it’s been fed into Google Translate. It’s fun hearing someone say “I’ve eaten more salt than you have rice,” an expression commonly used by the older Chinese people to admonish the younger generation, in a Hollywood movie.

This is a story about identity and belonging. Shang-Chi has always been Asian-American: in the earliest comics, his mother was a blonde American woman. Shang-Chi’s hero’s journey centres on finding out who he really is and reckoning with his father, who put him through arduous training and moulded him into an assassin, but who ostensibly loves him. The relationships in the film are very well defined, and the audience quickly understands the underlying nature of each of the relationships: the friendship between Shang-Chi and Katy, the estranged sibling relationship between Shang-Chi and Xialing, the parental relationship between Wenwu and Shang-Chi and so on.

Summary: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a spectacular adventure. Never feeling like it’s too tied down to the now-labyrinthian MCU mythology, there is something refreshing to this even as it evokes the feeling of classic wuxia films. Simu Liu proves himself to be a worthy superhero, Awkwafina is more than just the funny sidekick, and Tony Leung is just magnificent as one of the best Marvel villains yet. Far more than just token representation for the sake of it, Shang-Chi is one of the most successful instances of a big-budget movie designed to appeal to international audiences without feeling like mere hollow pandering. Stay behind for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene, but you should know this by now.  

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Reminiscence review

Director: Lisa Joy
Cast : Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton, Cliff Curtis, Daniel Wu, Marina de Tavira, Brett Cullen, Mojean Aria, Angela Sarafyan, Natalie Martinez
Genre: Sci-fi/Thriller
Run Time : 116 min
Opens : 18 August
Rating : NC16

Writer-director Lisa Joy goes from Westworld to Waterworld with this sci-fi noir set in a partially submerged city. Joy, who co-created the HBO series with her husband Jonathan Nolan, makes her feature directorial debut here.

It is the near future and most of Miami is underwater. Military veteran Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) runs a business offering “reminiscences” – clients undergo a procedure that helps them relive memories of their choice. Nick operates the business with fellow veteran Watts (Thandiwe Newton) and is sometimes called upon by the District Attorney’s office to use the reminiscence device for depositions. The technology was originally developed as an interrogation implement, but now, people use it to find solace in the happiness of their past. A mysterious nightclub singer named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) visits Nick and Watts, ostensibly wanting to find her missing keys. This upends Nick’s existence, sparking an obsession with Mae that finds him embroiled in a far-reaching conspiracy involving such unsavoury characters as crime lord Saint Joe (Daniel Wu), Joe’s hired muscle Cyrus Boothe (Cliff Curtis) and land baron Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen).

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Reminiscence marries its noir influences with a sci-fi aesthetic and central plot device to create a moody, atmospheric film. While it is hampered by certain elements, which we will get to in a bit, it’s often interesting to look at and is generally cast very well. The Greatest Showman co-stars Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson are called upon to play noir archetypes – he the trench coat-clad haunted private detective, she the sultry femme fatale chanteuse. Both actors fit these types perfectly, and convincingly inhabit the world that Joy has created. Joy brings many key crew members from Westworld along, including cinematographer Paul Cameron, production designer Howard Cummings and composer Ramin Djawadi. The world that Reminiscence takes place in feels expansive and well-realised. The result of climate disasters and rife with inequality and unrest, it is not as dramatic as other sci-fi dystopias, but feels quite plausible.  

Also from Westworld are actors Thandiwe Newton and Angela Sarafyan. Newton provides an excellent foil to Jackman, playing a survivor who is sardonic as a defence mechanism. Cliff Curtis turns in a supremely scuzzy performance, playing a crooked cop-turned mob enforcer.

A big problem with many neo-noir films is that they are too self-conscious about their influences, which is eminently evident here. You may have heard the phrase “this movie has watched a lot of movies” – Reminiscence is one of those. A lot of the dialogue is arch and unnatural, with the actors trying their best to make lines like “memories are like perfume. They work best in small doses.”

In trying to evoke the noir genre, Reminiscence can sometimes hold the audience at arm’s length. Joy is very conscientious about the world-building, but that means it’s not just the flooded Miami streets but also exposition that the characters must wade through. The first half of the film is sometimes slow, such that when there are two action sequences later, they almost feel as if they belong in a different film.  

The performance that sticks out as being particularly bad is Daniel Wu’s. His character is meant to be a dangerous, sexy crime boss, but his swagger feels affected and the character’s code-switching between English and Mandarin Chinese is sometimes stilted.

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The central device of accessing one’s memories via technology isn’t a new thing in sci-fi, but the way it is realised in Reminiscence is visually compelling. Subjects are partially submerged before the process can begin, further reinforcing the film’s water motif – perhaps a metaphor for how remembering past events is like looking at something through water. The memories are then projected onto a circular platform, like theatre in the round, which creates 3D holographic images via crystalline strings of bulbs. The resulting image feels slightly intangible – it’s right in front of the characters, but they can’t quite touch it. It’s the most elegant visual in the film.

Summary: Drawing on the expertise she gained as the co-showrunner of Westworld, Lisa Joy makes her feature film directorial debut with a movie that is ambitious if rough around the edges. Reminiscence is sometimes murky and, like its futuristic setting, can feel waterlogged. However, Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson’s bona fide movie star performances make the film more convincing than it would be otherwise. The sci-fi trappings are visually captivating and the world that the movie takes place in is well constructed.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Free Guy review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Shawn Levy
Cast : Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Taika Waititi, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery, Joe Keery, Camille Kostek
Genre: Action/Comedy/Sci-fi
Run Time : 115 min
Opens : 12 August (Sneaks 11 August)
Rating : PG13

As a hero’s journey begins, they have that moment when they realise they’re meant for more than their existence, whether it’s Luke Skywalker gazing at the twin sunset over Tatooine, or Belle singing “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere”. In this sci-fi action comedy, an NPC (non-player character) in a video game realises he’s meant for more than being shot at by gamers.

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a bank teller in Free City, an open-world multiplayer online video game that’s something of a cross between Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite. NPCs follow scripts and routines, but Guy is different – he’s capable of making decisions he shouldn’t be. Guy falls hard for Molotov Girl/Millie (Jodie Comer), a player in Free City with a specific agenda. Years ago, Millie and Keys (Joe Keery) developed an indie video game that was bought out by gaming giant Soonami, the publishers of Free City. Millie must prove that Antwan (Taika Waititi), the megalomaniacal Soonami boss, stole the build that she and Keys originally developed. Guy holds the key to this, as he grapples with the reality of his existence and it becomes a race against time to save him, his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) and the other denizens of Free City who are threatened by Antwan’s never-ending quest for profit.

Free Guy is entertaining and energetic, a studio blockbuster refreshingly devoid of many of the pitfalls associated with present-day studio blockbuster filmmaking. This is a good-hearted escapist adventure that is about an idealistic character making his way in a cynical world. There are many parallels to The LEGO Movie and The Truman Show, with the film also capturing the sense of ‘happy chaos’ that fuelled The LEGO Movie. Shawn Levy, who directed the Night at the Museum Trilogy, Real Steel and multiple episodes of Stranger Things, confidently handles the visual effects-heavy component of the movie while bringing humanity to the material. Best of all, it largely doesn’t feel like the product of studio execs wringing their hands, wondering “do the kids like this?”

The movie is an excellent showcase for Ryan Reynolds, who has crafted his movie star persona around being something of a wiseass. He knows he can be annoying, but here, Reynolds’ Guy is always endearing, an innocent who’s very easy to root for.

Jodie Comer, whom audiences might know from Killing Eve, acquits herself admirably in the dual roles of Millie and her avatar Molotov Girl. Comer is convincing as both a withdrawn video game developer and a badass, confident action heroine, and shares great chemistry with both Reynolds and Keery. This reviewer did not expect Free Guy to be a genuinely moving romance, but it is.

It’s inherent in the style of video game that Free Guy is referencing, but the movie is sometimes too frenetic and in-your-face. There are moments when it seems like it wants to have a bit of a harder edge, and while it’s all in the context of a video game, the violence can come off as quite excessive for what is ostens ibly a family film. The cameos from real life streamers Jacksepticeye, Ninja, Pokimane, DanTDM and LazarBeam did pull this reviewer out of it, and it’s elements like this and the specific Fortnite-like stylisation of the game that will almost immediately date Free Guy. It’s also just a matter of time before one of the afore-mentioned streamers gets “cancelled” (one might argue one or more already have been), and the filmmakers might regret their movie being associated with them. Perhaps feeling dated is just unavoidable with any movie related to video games, seeing how quickly games progress.

Taika Waititi’s performance is initially amusing, but quickly becomes grating. He’s doing way too much, turning it up to eleven and hamming it up as Antwan. Yes, tech moguls often have an inflated perception of themselves, but even considering this, Waititi’s portrayal feels too cartoonish for Antwan to be truly threatening.

Much as this reviewer enjoyed the romance, there are audiences who might feel that it is tacked on. One of the NPCs realises that she can be her own woman and doesn’t need to be in a relationship, so it might seem contradictory that the film itself ignores this.

Free Guy is cleverly constructed, and one big thing working for it is that the filmmakers understand the world of videogames. They understand that online gaming can be an incredibly toxic space where people feel free to be their worst selves. They also understand that game studios can be awful workplaces and that the people who run such studios can be abusive; especially timely considering the horrifying revelations coming out about Activision/Blizzard. However, the makers of Free Guy also clearly love video games and understand their appeal and have built a truly engrossing world. There is a heartfelt message about how online spaces do not have to reward our worst instincts, and that there are people who create and play video games who desire an oasis away from the typical behaviour associated with gamers. There’s an unexpected level of nuance which elevates Free Guy above just being a good sci-fi action-comedy, which it already is.

Summary: The best studio blockbuster this summer arrives better late than never. An inventive, dynamic and even moving sci-fi action comedy, Free Guy is a delight. Beyond making canny use of stars Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, the movie displays an understanding of the world of videogames, from the perspective of both gamers and developers. It tackles the often-toxic elements of video game culture while staying a safe distance from sanctimony, and while the world of Free City is chaotic, it is also genuinely exciting to spend time in. Free Guy is satisfying entertainment in a way most blockbusters burdened with setting up the next entry in a franchise rarely are.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Suicide Squad review

For F*** Magazine

Director: James Gunn
Cast : Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Sean Gunn
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 132 min
Opens : 5 August 2021
Rating : M18

In 2016, Warner Bros. released the third entry in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU): Suicide Squad. While that film was a commercial success, it did not fare too well with critics and many fans. Five years later, we get a standalone sequel that reuses certain actors/characters from the first film, but otherwise has nothing to do with it, with the hope that second time’s the charm. 

A military coup has occurred on the island nation of Corto Maltese, off the coast of South America. Corto Maltese is home to the Jotunheim research facility, which houses something known only as “Project Starfish”. Fearing that the military regime could unleash Project Starfish against Americans, intelligence agency director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles Task Force X to infiltrate Corto Maltese. Led by Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the squad comprises Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodsport/Robert Du Bois (Idris Elba), Christopher Smith/Peacemaker (John Cena), Nanaue/King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), Cleo Cazo/Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior) and Abner Krill/Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian). Their mission is to track down Gaius Grieves/The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), an evil geneticist who oversees Project Starfish. With their idiosyncratic personalities and unorthodox abilities, the team must work together and stay on mission, lest Waller detonate the bomb implanted in each of their necks.

At its best, The Suicide Squad captures the tone of its source material, bringing it to big screen life. Writer-director James Gunn understands the assignment perfectly, crafting something chaotic, violent, funny, entertaining, and even a little heart-warming. Drawing inspiration from 80s military action films like Predator and Commando, The Suicide Squad’s central mission is well defined, which is more than can be said of its predecessor’s plot. The film is cast well, and the characters are all used in interesting ways. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is much more internally consistent and better managed than the DCEU, it is highly unlikely that a big-budget R-rated movie would be released as part of that franchise – at least until they figure out how to integrate Deadpool into the MCU.

All the chaos and anarchy on display can sometimes feel like eating too much candy. The movie also sometimes comes off as too mean-spirited, trading in shock humour that can fall ever so slightly on the wrong side of bad taste. There’s a sequence in which our heroes unwittingly murder a village of innocent people, and Gunn seems to have it out for birds, with more than one sequence involving violence on birds. While the film handles its large cast better than a lot of other ensemble comic book movies do, there still are times when it feels spread a bit too thin. 

The circumstances surrounding Gunn’s hiring are slightly complicated, but it all worked out for him in the end. Riding high on the two Guardians of the Galaxy films, Gunn was fired from the third after old distasteful jokes of his were unearthed. The competition then scooped him up, offering Gunn any project he wanted. It only makes sense, since the first Suicide Squad movie was obviously a reaction to the success of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Then, Gunn was re-hired by Marvel, meaning he would make both The Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Gunn comes from the Troma world, meaning his stock in trade is low-budget, gory horror-comedy. Like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson before him, Gunn has gone from schlock to blockbusters, but has never really forgotten his roots – Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman makes a cameo in this movie, as he has in several of Gunn’s earlier films. Gunn displays an affection for and understanding of the source material, and works well with his talent, bringing wonderful performances out of the cast.

The premise of the Suicide Squad as re-imagined by comics writer John Ostrander (who makes a cameo in this movie) is that each line-up is comprised of expendable, C-list-or-lower villains. Gunn embraces this, claiming that Polka Dot Man’s inclusion in the film is the result of him Googling “who is the dumbest super villain of all time?”

Robbie continues to be an amazing Harley Quinn, with this movie showcasing her at her most violent. Elba cuts a heroic figure and is an undeniable presence onscreen. He was initially cast to replace Will Smith as Deadshot, but the character was rewritten into Bloodsport should Smith eventually choose to return. Viola Davis as Amanda Waller was arguably the best casting in the first movie, and she remains a force to be reckoned with here, even if most of her scenes are confined to a control room.

Cena portrays both excellent comic timing and brutish physicality as Peacemaker, a character who has decided that the path to peace is to kill everyone, because then there will be nobody to wage war. King Shark is imagined as loveable but intimidating, with Stallone’s voice fitting this design perfectly. Melchior is, unexpectedly, the heart of the film, with Ratcatcher II emerging as the most sympathetic and loveable character. David Dastmalchian, who has portrayed many a creepy character onscreen, is wonderfully unhinged as Polka Dot Man. It’s an A+ lineup of C-list-or-lower characters.

Summary: An ideal marriage of filmmaker and source material, The Suicide Squad is the messy, gory fun that fans have always wanted. This is a great example of what happens when a studio just lets a filmmaker do what they do best. James Gunn takes what he learned making the Guardians of the Galaxy films and ramps up the chaos, violence and anarchy. There are times when The Suicide Squad leaves a bit of a sour taste in one’s mouth, but for the most part, it makes fantastic use of its premise and characters. 

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jungle Cruise review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Édgar Ramírez, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 127 min
Opens : 29 July 2021 (Sneaks 28 July)
Rating : PG13

“Weird Al” Yankovic has a song called “Skipper Dan,” a melancholic tale of a Juilliard grad who must settle for being a Disney theme park cast member, playing the skipper on the Jungle Cruise ride. It’s a song about how following one’s dreams can often end in soul-crushing tedium, something this critic certainly knows nothing about. Anyway, we’re getting an upgrade from Skipper Dan to Skipper Dwayne in this movie based on said theme park ride.

It is 1916. English botanist Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is in search of the fabled Tears of the Moon, a tree deep in the Amazon jungle which has petals said to cure any ailment. Lily’s brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) would much rather live a luxurious existence but is dragged along on the expedition by his sister. Arriving in Brazil, they come across Skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), who gives river tours on his beat-up steamboat La Quila and is armed with corny one-liners. Frank is not above a bit of grifting and deception to get by, and behind on his payments to harbourmaster Nilo (Paul Giamatti), jumps at the chance to ferry Lily and McGregor when he finds out they are rich. Also hunting for the Tears of the Moon is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), an obsessive German aristocrat who takes a submarine into the Amazon. The Houghton siblings and Frank must battle all manner of obstacles, including undead Conquistadors led by the ruthless Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez).

Jungle Cruise is a throwback and one that a certain section of moviegoers will find welcome. The poster is deliberately evocative of Drew Struzan’s classic painted movie posters, though it isn’t actually created by him. This movie is a throwback in that it’s a period adventure movie, but also a throwback to a time before Disney owned intellectual property like Marvel and Star Wars and before they were regularly remaking their animated films. Disney’s most successful attempt at turning a theme park attraction into a potential film franchise was with Pirates of the Caribbean, which Jungle Cruise bears many similarities to. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, known for directing Liam Neeson-starring thrillers like Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night and The Commuter, aims to recapture the spirit of those rip-roaring adventures. Flavio Labiano’s cinematography is textured and warm, while James Newton Howard provides a rousing score. There is some haunting horror movie-adjacent imagery, especially the one undead Conquistador who is covered in honeycombs and bees, Candyman-style.

Emily Blunt puts in a wonderful starring turn, as a spirited woman who has been rejected from her chosen field based on being a woman. There are notes of studio-ordered “strong woman protagonist,” but Blunt transcends that with an energetic, committed turn. Jesse Plemons plays against type, channelling Christoph Waltz as a power-mad royal, making for an entertaining villain.

Adventure stories are often intrinsically tied to a fundamentally colonialist worldview: the hero is often a European or American man outrunning the spear-wielding savages. Sometimes, a village is in dire straits, and only the hero can save the primitive folk. One can’t help but cringe at such depictions, with movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom being straight-up racist. Jungle Cruise subverts this with its portrayal of indigenous Amazon tribespeople and seems to be very conscious of the uncomfortable colonial undertones that many movies in this genre possess, intentional or otherwise. We won’t give too much away, but there is a commendable attempt at addressing one of the more controversial elements of the ride.

Jungle Cruise can sometimes feel like a facsimile of a facsimile – it invokes Romancing the Stone and Indiana Jones, which in turn were inspired by movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Jungle Cruise can either be taken as refreshing, given how different it is from the standard summer blockbuster one might get in 2021, or somewhat stale, given its old-fashioned sensibilities which have been processed through the Disney studio machine. It’s impossible to ignore how much this movie wants to be The Mummy (1999): Frank is analogous to Rick, Lily to Evelyn, McGregor to Jonathan and Aguirre to Imhotep. Alas, it’s some ways off from that. The midsection sags, and at 127 minutes, this feels a shade too long. The movie is filled with computer-generated animals, and one would think that after 2016’s Jungle Book, Disney would have mastered this art, but sometimes the animals can’t help but feel a little artificial.

Unfortunately, Dwayne Johnson is a major problem with this movie. Sure, he’s charismatic as always and can play a roguish adventure movie hero in his sleep, but he just doesn’t fit with the WWI-era setting and shares little romantic chemistry with Blunt, such that the love story subplot becomes actively uncomfortable. Frank is inspired by Humphrey Bogart’s steamboat captain character from The African Queen – this is Bogey if he ate 14 egg whites for breakfast and if his boat had a gym hidden somewhere. Johnson’s larger-than-life presence, which has served him well in many other roles, is distracting and doesn’t complement the setting or story. Perhaps someone like Pedro Pascal, Rodrigo Santoro or Oscar Isaac might have fit the role better. However, there is an excellent scene in the second act in which Frank’s intriguing backstory is revealed.

Summary: While somewhat derivative, Jungle Cruise will scratch that adventure movie itch for audiences who are starved of movies like Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone and The Mummy (1999). Emily Blunt showcases her strengths in a role that seems tailored for her, while Dwayne Johnson can’t help but feel out of place even as he brings his trademark charisma to bear. Jungle Cruise also reckons with uncomfortable, outmoded adventure movie tropes in a worthwhile way.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Black Widow review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Cate Shortland
Cast : Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Ray Winstone, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 134 min
Opens : 8 July 2021 (Sneaks from 7 July)
Rating : PG13

Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies have become an expected feature of the theatrical release calendar, and 2020 was the first year since 2009 in which none were released in cinemas. While the MCU is branching out on Disney+, it’s good to hear the Marvel Studios logo fanfare in a cinema again. After multiple delays, Black Widow finally arrives.

Set right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is a fugitive from the authorities. While attempting to keep a low profile, she crosses paths with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a sister figure who has undergone similar training. The duo eventually reunites with Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) – years ago, the four Russians posed as a family, undercover in rural Ohio. Now, they must work to dismantle the Red Room program run by the ruthless Dreykov (Ray Winstone), and attempt to free the brainwashed women whom Dreykov is conditioning to be the next generation of deadly operatives, known as ‘Widows’. Dreykov’s secret weapon, the enigmatic Taskmaster, is a Terminator-like assassin who can mimic the moves of any combatant he studies. Natasha, who has spent her whole life running from her past, must confront it, finally gaining a degree of closure.

The Black Widow character is long overdue for a solo movie, something that’s been floated since even before the character’s MCU debut in 2010’s Iron Man 2, with a Black Widow movie announced as early as 2004. Scarlett Johansson has never been given a great deal to sink her teeth into with the character, and the preceding MCU films have offered little more than tantalising hints at the character’s dark backstory of being trained and brainwashed from childhood into the perfect killing machine. This is a movie that is interested in its characters, and director Cate Shortland excels at scenes in which people are talking to each other, hashing out unresolved tension. There is a stylishness to the proceedings and a touch of spy movie flair. Several action sequences are entertaining, and the violence seems more brutal, impactful and immediate than in many other MCU films, perhaps pushing the PG13 rating a bit.

By now, we’re used to hearing criticisms of the MCU movies being formulaic. Unfortunately, despite a few stylistic touches, Black Widow still often feels like it’s rolled off the Marvel Studios production line. The pacing of the movie is very much “dialogue scene, action scene, dialogue scene, action scene,” in a way that feels very dutiful. There is an attempt to balance the character stuff with the superhero stuff, and it’s not quite as effortless as it should be.

The big climactic action sequence is stuffed with CGI, and by then it can’t help but feel like the movie is on autopilot. The action sequences in Black Widow and indeed in most other MCU movies are technically proficient, but it seems there are only so many ways a vehicle can flip over. It’s a bit of an open secret that MCU action scenes are mostly handled by a separate team, and some directors are better at making everything fit together than others, so the movie sometimes feels a bit disjointed. The curse of the mediocre villain strikes again – while Taskmaster’s mimicry gimmick is initially interesting, there’s just not a lot to him, and the dynamic of Taskmaster being the heavy and Dreykov as the puppet master is efficient but overly familiar.

The best parts of Black Widow are when the makeshift family of Natasha, Yelena, Alexei and Melina are spending time together. There are bits of the movie that even feel like The Incredibles. The way Natasha views the arrangement as a sham, whereas Yelena still has an emotional attachment to it, is an excellent approach to this setup. The new additions to the cast are all excellent, with rising star Pugh positioning herself in just the right MCU role. Her interactions with Johansson really feel like two sisters bickering, and there’s a believable chemistry between them, conveying the sense of two people making up for lost time.

David Harbour steals the show with a warm, loveable performance as Russia’s very own super soldier. He brings a great deal of dad energy to the proceedings and looks to be having a great time. Weisz is a lower-key, dignified presence, even if Melina is not an especially interesting character as written.

Summary: While not a wholly satisfying swansong for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, this solo outing introduces some enjoyable characters into the MCU and is interested in its characters’ internal lives, even as there is plenty of requisite action spectacle. The movie is at its most enjoyable when it’s about Natasha’s makeshift family unit, with Florence Pugh’s Yelena making for an endearing little sister figure. As is the custom, stick around for a post-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Quiet Place Part II review

For F*** Magazine

Director: John Krasinski
Cast : Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou, John Krasinski
Genre: Horror/Thriller/Sci-fi
Run Time : 97 min
Opens : 17 June 2021 (Sneaks from 5 June)
Rating : PG13

In 2018, A Quiet Place became a sleeper hit with audiences and critics alike. While John Krasinski had directed two feature films before, it was A Quiet Place that made everyone sit up and take notice of his skill behind the camera. The film’s box office success all but guaranteed that a sequel would be made, but especially after the pandemic has forced this sequel to be delayed for an additional year, can it live up to the brilliance of the first film?

After discovering that a high-frequency noise can drive away the monsters that have killed most of the earth’s population, the Abbott family must venture into the outside world. Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and her children Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and a newborn baby leave the farm where they have been hiding for years. They come across fellow survivor Emmett (Cillian Murphy), whom they knew from before the monsters took over the earth. While the Abbotts are armed with a way of repelling the monsters, that doesn’t mean they’re safe, as they discover that the monsters are far from the only threats that lie in wait for them.

Krasinski continues to display strong directorial skill, staging several tense, thrilling set-pieces. The film’s opening sequence, which is a flashback that takes place on the very first day of the attack, is a killer way to start the film, allowing the audience to witness the initial moments of chaos that will change the Abbotts’ lives, and the lives of everyone else on earth, forever. This movie is not quite as scary as the first film, but there are a healthy amount of edge-of-your-seat moments.

The performances are as solid as they were in the first film, with Millicent Simmonds’ Regan getting more to do in this one. Cillian Murphy has a haunted quality to him that works well for the role of a ragged survivor. This film switches the character dynamics up by having Emmet try to protect Regan when she strikes out on her own, determined to find other survivors. This makes A Quiet Place Part II seem even more like the video game The Last of Us than the first movie did, with Emmet analogous to Joel and Regan analogous to Ellie.

Unfortunately, in trying to open the world and do something different, A Quiet Place Part II is not as good as the first movie. The sense of intimacy and the feeling of it being a very personal project for Krasinski and Blunt are somewhat diminished here, even though Krasinski arguably had more say over this one since he’s the sole credited writer. Krasinski was initially reluctant to return for the sequel, planning to pitch story ideas but hand the film off to another director, before he was convinced to return.

While Murphy puts in a good performance, Emmet can’t help but feel like a replacement for Krasinski’s Lee. The movie introduces some interesting ideas about the world beyond and certain groups of survivors, then quickly abandons them. Blunt has less to do here than one might expect. Also, since we already know what the monsters look like, they’re much more clearly visible in this film and sometimes feel a bit less scary because of it.

Just as in the first film, the sound design is an integral component in A Quiet Place Part II. The film very smartly uses the subjectivity of sound, with the sound dropping out entirely when we’re seeing – or rather, hearing – things from Regan’s point of view since the character is hearing-impaired. Sound designers Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl and sound mixer Brandon Proctor do a marvellous job creating a soundscape for a world where making too much noise can be deadly. It’s especially interesting to start the film out with a flashback, seeing and hearing the world as normal, before jumping forward to show the contrast.

Summary: A Quiet Place Part II feels less personal than the first film, but considering the high bar that’s been set, it’s still a thoroughly thrilling, immersive experience and a remarkably well-made monster movie that is a further evolution of John Krasinski as a director. The film also serves as a showcase for Millicent Simmonds, arguably the breakout star of the first film. It’s well worth the additional year’s wait necessitated by the pandemic.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wrath of Man review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast : Jason Statham, Holt McCallany, Jeffrey Donovan, Josh Hartnett, Laz Alonso, Raúl Castillo, Scott Eastwood, Niamh Algar, Rob Delaney, Eddie Marsan, Andy Garcia
Genre: Action/Thriller
Run Time : 119 min
Opens : 29 April 2021
Rating : M18

There’s something exciting about an armoured truck full of cash that filmmakers can’t resist. 2009’s Armoured was a caper centred around an armoured truck crew, and an unrelated film of the same name is set to be produced by Michael Bay. Films like The Heat and The Town have memorable armoured truck-centric set-pieces. Now, Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham take the wheel.

Patrick “H” Hill (Jason Statham) is a mysterious new employee at Fortico Security, an armoured truck company operating in Los Angeles. Every week, Fortico transports millions of dollars around the city. Bullet (Holt McCallany) teaches H the ropes. During an attempted robbery, H showcases formidable skills, indicating he is overqualified for the job. He crosses paths with a gang of ex-military personnel-turned-robbers. H is on a path of vengeance, and soon, the reason for this becomes clear.

Based on the French Film Le convoyeur (Cash Truck), Wrath of Man is a solid, muscular action thriller that makes good use of both director Ritchie and star Statham’s strengths. There are some brutal action sequences, and the production design of the armoured car depot is quite striking. Wrath of Man often feels beefy and substantial, when many mid-budget action movies can feel somewhat lacklustre and pack too little of a punch. The movie manages to build intrigue in its first half; it’s too bad that the trailers give away the reveal of why exactly H is working for Fortico. The ever-dependable Holt McCallany is especially charismatic, threatening to steal the show from Statham at times. Wrath of Man escapes the feeling of being confined to direct-to-streaming and fits well on the big screen.

The movie is oozing with a bit too much machismo for its own good. The screenplay by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies is crammed with dialogue that strains too hard to sound tough and badass, sometimes bordering on self-parody. There doesn’t seem to be much to any of the characters except H. A cameo by Post Malone threatens to pull one out of the movie. Scott Eastwood’s villainous character is also a non-entity, with Eastwood having little screen presence compared to Statham and McCallany. The film is also ultimately generic and attempts to conceal this with some fairly clever structural shuffling. The movie is also divided into chapters, which, together with the title, can’t help but come off as a bit pretentious for what is mostly a meat-and-potatoes action thriller.

Wrath of Man reunites star Statham and director Ritchie, who burst onto the scene in the 90s with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch but haven’t collaborated since 2005’s widely-panned Revolver. This is not one of Ritchie’s more self-indulgent films; his signature combination of “toff guy” (the name of his production company) schtick and self-aware humour is toned down a little here. It seems like Ritchie is channelling Michael Mann, sometimes successfully. Statham isn’t an actor with a lot of range, but he is watchable doing what he does best. The pair will next collaborate on the spy thriller Five Eyes, currently in production.

Summary: Wrath of Man sees Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham doing what they do best. It’s not quite as cool as it thinks it is and sometimes has a whiff of self-importance about it. Overall though, this is a solid, intense action thriller that doesn’t quite feel as disposable as the typical action movies of the week we’ve been getting on streaming.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Nobody review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Ilya Naishuller
Cast : Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, RZA, Christopher Lloyd, Aleksei Serebryakov, Gage Munroe, Paisley Cadorath
Genre: Action/Thriller
Run Time : 92 min
Opens : 22 April 2021
Rating : NC16

What if Bob Odenkirk of Mr Show and Better Call Saul fame were the world’s greatest badass? That’s the premise of this action thriller, and it’s easier to buy than one might think.

Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk) is a mild-mannered family man who works at a construction company owned by his father-in-law – a “nobody”. Hutch lives an ordinary existence with his wife Becca (Connie Nielsen) and their two children, Blake (Gage Munroe) and Sammy (Paisley Cadorath). A home invasion incident in which Hutch appears to fail to protect his family seems to cement his milquetoast status. However, when drunk gangsters threaten a woman on a bus, something within Hutch is unleashed and he takes them on. One of the gangsters is the younger brother of Russian crime lord Yulian (Aleksei Serebryakov), who oversees the Russian mafia’s investments. Hutch suddenly becomes a target of Yulian. Hutch’s half-brother Harry (RZA) and their elderly father David (Christopher Lloyd) also get drawn into the fray. Yulian and his men get more than they bargained for as they tangle with whom they assumed was just a nobody.

Nobody is an excellent action movie. It’s visceral, the action is brutal and well-staged without being overly stylised, there’s an energy and wit to the direction, and it has a leading man with surprise on his side. Director Ilya Naishuller helmed Hardcore Henry; the first feature-length action movie shot entirely from a first-person point of view. Nobody is much more conventional and polished but has just enough of that guerrilla vibe when it counts.

The John Wick connection is heavily played up in the movie’s promotional material, with the first movie’s co-director David Leitch on board as a producer, and all three films’ screenwriter Derek Kolstad on scripting duty. There is enough of a John Wick vibe here, while letting the movie be enough of its own thing. The supporting cast is great, especially when RZA and Christopher Lloyd show up. The movie has a sense of humour without that getting in the way of the action’s impact. “A better version of a direct-to-DVD movie” might seem like a back-handed compliment, but that’s a good description of Nobody. There’s a version of this that could have been completely workmanlike and dull, so it’s a treat that it did not end up that way.

Nobody is mostly riding on the novelty of Odenkirk in the lead. Take that away, and many of its constituent parts are generic. Major components of the movie seem copy/pasted from the first John Wick, especially the villain Yulian. In John Wick, the hero is attacked by a Russian mob boss’ son, while in Nobody, it’s a Russian mob boss’ younger brother. Connie Nielsen gets very little to do, the Becca character relegated to the role of “the wife” as so many similar characters in similar movies have been before. There are perhaps a few too many ironic needle drops, with songs like “What a Wonderful World,” “The Impossible Dream” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” underscoring violent sequences. It’s during these moments that the movie gets a bit too smart alecky.

Nobody is wish fulfilment in the way many action movies of the 80s and 90s were. What if everyone thought you were lame, but you were secretly an awesome tough guy? The movie leans just enough into the initial absurdity of its premise, without winking too hard at the audience. The thing about the action stars of yore were Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Dolph Lundgren couldn’t blend into a crowd. Bob Odenkirk could. His performance in this film is a glimpse at what things could’ve been like if Bruce Willis, who also came from a comedy background, still made an effort. The closest analogue to this is the string of late-career Liam Neeson action movies, but even then, he was already known for serious roles. It might seem like a big ask for audiences to accept Saul Goodman as John Wick, but Odenkirk puts in the work. He trained for two years to perform his own stunts, and it pays off.

Summary: Casting an actor who’s not known as an action star as the lead in an action movie is a gamble. In Nobody, it not only pays off, but it makes the action-thriller one of the most entertaining genre entries in recent memory. Genre aficionados will get a good action movie, and on top of that, you get Bob Odenkirk as you’ve never seen him before.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Mortal Kombat (2021) review

For F*** Magazine


Director: Simon McQuoid
Cast : Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, Sisi Stringer
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 110 min
Opens : 8 April 2021
Rating : M18

In 1992, the arcade game Mortal Kombat, created by Ed Boon and John Tobias, became a defining entry in the fighting game genre. The franchise has courted controversy and had a presence in every conceivable form of media, including two theatrically released movies in the 90s. Mortal Kombat returns to the big screen in this reboot.

MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) bears a mysterious dragon-shaped birthmark, indicating that he is descended from a line of legendary fighters. Cole is targeted by Shang Tsung (Chin Han), the demon sorcerer of Outworld, who has sent Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) in pursuit of Cole. Bi-Han/Sub-Zero, who can control ice, has a long-running rivalry with Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada), whom he apparently killed centuries earlier. After he is discovered by Special Forces operatives Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Cole is transported to Lord Raiden’s (Tadanobu Asano) temple. Training alongside Shaolin warriors Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang) and the loose cannon mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson), Cole prepares to represent Earthrealm against combatants from Outworld in a mythical tournament – a tournament called Mortal Kombat.

The people who made this movie seem to have a handle on what the fans want. They might not exactly get there, but there is an eagerness to please that is evident in the film. The iconography associated with the games and the characters is treated with a degree of reverence, even as the movie never takes itself too seriously, despite initial concerns to the contrary. Even the most devoted Mortal Kombat fans are hard-pressed to deny that there is a lot of campiness and silliness in the source material, and the movie is often entertainingly silly. The Benjamin Wallfisch score includes variations of the iconic original “Techno Syndrome” theme by Oliver Adams; Wallfisch’s reworking of the theme was reportedly used by director Simon McQuoid to recruit his cast.

The stunt team, led by supervising stunt coordinator Kyle Gardiner, stunt coordinator Jade Amantea and fight coordinator Chan Griffin, assemble action sequences that are plentiful and generally well executed. Many of the actors involved have a martial arts background, which helps. Unlike the two 90s films, this Mortal Kombat movie has an R (M18 in Singapore) rating, meaning it can revel in the grisly violence that is the games’ trademark. The fatalities are graphic, but probably what long-time fans of the game would consider tame. Still, we go to a Mortal Kombat movie for the fighting scenes, and there are lots of those.

Making a coherent narrative feature film that makes good use of the expected Mortal Kombat roster was always going to be a challenge. Unfortunately, this movie is sometimes stuck in a no man’s land – neophytes might feel kept at arm’s length by the unwieldy exposition and certain preposterous elements that fans will accept, while hardcore fans might feel that something’s missing. This is tricky to calibrate for any movie based on an existing property. McQuoid tosses in Easter Eggs, and the movie seems to fall back on “look, there’s that thing you like!” a little too often.

Mortal Kombat wants to be epic, and it often falls short. While the fights do look good, the movie overall lacks the visual grandeur and spectacle associated with the settings of the games. We never really get a good sense of the stakes, and for a story in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance, things often feel too casual. There are times when the movie feels like a weird underdog sports story, with the team of screw-ups trying to take down the reigning champs. The B-movie feel of Mortal Kombat works against it almost as often as it works for it.

Most of the casting works well, with Joe Taslim and Hiroyuki Sanada being the highlights. Taslim, best known for The Raid and who crossed over into Hollywood with Fast and Furious 6 and Star Trek Beyond, lends Sub-Zero an icy resolve. Sanada always has gravitas to spare and imbues Scorpion with power and grief.

The Cole character is the source of many Mortal Kombat fans’ reservations going into this. Cole is clearly meant to be an entry point for those unfamiliar with the franchise and very much is a bland, standard issue ‘chosen one’ protagonist who can feel like a fan fiction self-insert character. While Lewis Tan is an adept martial artist and is very handsome, he doesn’t have a lot of screen presence.

Jessica McNamee makes for a good Sonya Blade, essaying the right amount of toughness without it crossing over into parody. Josh Lawson’s Kano is the designated comic relief, and Lawson seems to be having a lot of fun in the role, making multiple pop culture references (but only to Warner Bros-owned properties). The character does border on grating, though.

Ludi Lin’s turn as Liu Kang is almost too earnest at first, but he ably captures the archetypical martial arts movie hero nature of the character. Max Huang’s Kung Lao is a lot of fun, and there are some fun gags involving his metal hat. Tadanobu Asano’s Raiden is disappointing, as he lacks both the sense of authority and dash of mischief that is crucial to the character.

Aside from Sub-Zero, the Outworld characters are a bit underwhelming. Chin Han’s Shang Tsung skulks around and glowers a lot and gives supervillain speeches but is rarely ever genuinely menacing.

Summary: Video game movies have had a spotty track record, and while Mortal Kombat is far from the worst of the bunch, it’s also not the saviour of the genre some might have hoped it to be. There’s a lot to like, some of the casting is amazing and it’s filled with watchable fights, but the movie feels fragmented and struggles to build its sprawling world. Imagine Scorpion’s kunai, stopping a good distance short of its target.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong