As theaters have started to re-open their doors to the public, I let out a sigh of relief; even if the best movies were to be released simultaneously on streaming and theaters, I would still be the person buying a ticket and an ice-cold bottle of water, waiting in line to get in the theater. I don’t think there are movies that would not benefit from a theater showing, yet there are movies that hurt from not being in one; this is often attached to blockbusters. It’s a different experience to see the new, big, dumb action movie on the big screen, in comfy armchairs, with fresh popcorn, and loud speakers; it’s a spectacle that can’t be replicated at home, even if you have a home cinema because of the absence of strangers enjoying (or not) the same magic you see and reacting to it alongside you. Just the fact that you have to leave home and enter a dark, yet somewhat familiar room to sit and experience something you’ve been looking forward to, is enough to put you in a different mind-state and give you a different experience.
That’s the experience I had with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and starring Simu Liu and Awkwafina. I am not the biggest Marvel fan; in fact, I would say I’m not really a fan, just a casual observer and occasionally get drawn into movies due to cast or filmmakers and special circumstances. I was going to watch the spectacular conclusion of a 27-movie arc and, despite not completely loving it, respect the dedication and talent required to even pull something like that off, let alone do it as well as Marvel has. For this movie, I wanted to see it because I heard it was the last movie Brad Allen made – legendary stunt person in the industry – and seeing as a lot of the action was inspired by Asian cinema, I had to see what that would look like in a Marvel movie. As I expected, I got some decent action set-pieces and great directing, yet left yearning for more “uniqueness” in the story and mood departments; I am not one to jump on hate trains easily and I don’t think Marvel deserves the scrutiny they get from people who are not into the type of movies Marvel makes, but I do agree that they are not that interesting or exciting if you are not following along. Shang-Chi is another Marvel movie; it’s the origin story of a hero finding out what makes them special and how to overcome their fears and issues to be the hero that is needed; they go against a villain who has a tragic backstory and threatens to change the world order for his own nefarious reasons; there’s a cool and goofy sidekick that banters back and forth; there’s a prophecy and a magical item that gives the wielder unimaginable powers. I could lie and say I didn’t mind it since that is what I expected, but I got bored about halfway through; I know its harsh and a few movies from now I’ll see something that has a formulaic story and shrug it off, but I wanted more and hoped that taking a break from Marvel movies would have meant that the next one I saw would have allowed me to skip advancements and be surprised by this one, but it hasn’t happened yet.
However, I do have to give credit where credit is due and for Shang-Chi, that credit has to go to the directing, the acting, and the action portion of the package. I haven’t seen anything he’s directed before, but at least I am very interested in catching up with his filmography and looking forward to his next projects; alongside other Marvel movies, there’s just a flow and togetherness to the movie that is very hard to do. The actors, the sets, the effects, the action, everything seems to be on the same page, working towards the same goal. Moreover, the directing of those action scenes is just top-notch; even though I have some issues with the action scenes, I can’t knock them on the choreography or the way they were presented. To add to this, Simu Liu as Shang-Chi is brilliant; despite his impressive physique, he starts the movie as a goof and a wanderer, spending his life thinking only of having fun and remaining hidden. Despite being a goof, when he eventually transforms into Shang-Chi he is as stoic and natural as you’d like, completing his transformation as a hero who has learned his lessons and carved his own path.
The action scenes however are somewhat representative of what I dislike about Marvel; real stuff, real effort, and genuine talent placed in front of a fake, CGI backdrop. I like what I’m seeing and it is what I enjoy most, but the contrast of people running and performing impressive close quarters combat choreography in front of fake buildings on fake sets is just something that numbs my senses. I loved the early action scenes that looked like they were made by people passionate about practical effects and the importance of characters and growth through action; give me any movie with good instances of characters growing through action and I’m a happy guy. I loved the mirror scene and the beginning of the final battle; but then the story is so bland and the stakes become ridiculous, the settings for the action become bonkers, and it started losing me little by little. I’m not saying that it wasn’t realistic enough for me or that the writing was bad; I hardly questioned the logic of the movie since it is established that this is a magical world where the stuff that happens are ‘normal’ and I always find Marvel’s writing to be good at the very least. To me, the lack of surprises, the lack of any ‘new’ ideas or at least stronger context, just made me feel like I was watching another Marvel movie with action that I was more interested in.
If I hadn’t seen Shang-Chi in the theater, I would have been glancing at my phone when the action was not on the screen; on the contrary, despite also having a ton of issues and a problem with being “unique”, I watched Kate on Netflix and could not keep my eyes off the TV. Kate is directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Woody Harrelson, and Miku Patricia Martineau. Kate is an unoriginal idea in such a way that everyone can have different touchpoints that it borrows from; some say Nikita or Anna or other Luc Besson female assassin movies; some say John Wick or Atomic Blonde or other modern “gung-fu” movies. I said “female Crank with even more Anime”. It’s about a female assassin fatally poisoned and only has 24 hours to live, so she decides to get revenge on those who poisoned her; are there any surprises in store, any meaningful subversions or deviations from the long list of movies you can directly compare Kate to? No, but it makes up for it with exciting action scenes, great visuals, a strong lead performance by Winstead, and above-par writing. The choreography of the action scenes, the locations, the directing, the pacing, everything is done to great quality levels and I loved every second of them; its gory, its fun, and its thrilling. Is there a fake-looking car chase that made me roll my eyes? Sure. Is the plot a direct copy of other movies with nothing added? Yes. Is the sidekick character a bit annoying and grading at times? Absolutely. However, the rest of the action scenes were brilliant fun and really well-shot; the plot was nothing to write home about, but it was well-written and performed with the neon-visuals adding variety and energy; even the sidekick eventually grew on me, because of how much I liked Kate and how she grew to love her even for a day, within the span of a day.
I know I just complained about Shang-Chi feeling like another Marvel movie and a paragraph later I’m gushing about Kate being a great action movie with nothing new to provide, however I found Kate more enticing, exciting, and interesting despite having seen a dozen movies like it. I feel like if Shang-Chi was a martial-arts movie without the world-ending stakes, the big, expensive CGI, and with a few surprises thrown in, I would have walked away excited as I have plenty of times before with other Marvel movies; Kate does have the same “uniqueness” problem and it may hit others harder than Shang-Chi, but I actively seek out similar movies to Kate and it exceeded my expectations, so I liked it more. What I loved about both and I hope it continues, is to see more diversity for leading action heroes and some of my favorite Asian actors showing up in these big productions to show the world what they’ve been missing out on and hopefully entice them to seek out these legends and their filmography. Michelle Yeoh and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung in Shang-Chi have a long list of awesome and amazing films between them, while the legend Jun Kunimura in Kate remains, even in his 66 years, one of the best actors in the world. Watch both movies and then seek out these legends to see the exceptional filmography that inspired them to expand you cinematic universe with even more great films.