Labor Day marks the end of summer for many, though the first day of fall is still three weeks away. While some critics have made their way to Venice, Telluride and, in a few more days, Toronto, to discover new works by renowned filmmakers, others take advantage of the lull in the new release calendar to take stock of some big studio offerings that have come out over the past four weeks.
That's where yours truly comes in. So, what have August and the first couple of days in September brought moviegoers? Think big: oversized casts, elaborate setpieces, running times that approximate or exceed two hours, and the creation of realms within realms vying for your imagination, otherwise known as worldbuilding.
Are these large-scaled productions worth your filmgoing dollar or streaming commitment? This popcorn movie quartet, featuring big budgets, noisy rumbles and a bevy of A-listers flexing their action muscles, run the gamut from engrossing to repellent, with a South Florida-set guilty pleasure thrown in for good measure. Let's take the plunge.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”: Some of you have likely thought about throwing in the towel when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (To those fully immersed in the MCU bubble, butt out. This doesn't concern you.) The way the content-churning conglomerate's theatrical features and Disney Plus series share inextricable links with one another is not far removed from a few seasons' worth of “must-see” TV, or perhaps more accurately, comic book titles that put out a series of tie-in issues to coax you into opening your wallets so you don't miss any relevant details.
And yet, just when you're ready to say enough already, something comes along that hints at what the House of Feige is capable of if they opted to lay off the fanboy-baiting shout-outs to other Marvel products more often. When they're not too busy inserting characters and references from previous films, considerable portions of “WandaVision” and the first season of “Loki” were actually engaging, and they even displayed some formal creativity. But their latest feature, Marvel Studios' first in a long time to debut only in theaters, shows them stepping up their game. It's about time. This neat-o foray into East Asian mythology shows that all the MCU needed to dust off the cobwebs and take a bit of a break from their hamster wheel of interlocking texts was a little wuxia and a dash of Jackie Chan-inspired fisticuffs. Nostalgia for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Supercop” beats nostalgia for the halcyon days of “Infinity War” and “Endgame” any day.
The film starts with a prologue that gives off “Fellowship of the Ring” vibes, as power-hungry Chinese warrior Xu Wenwu (legendary Hong Kong star Tony Leung) acquires the titular pieces of jewelry, granting him godlike powers. The rings? They look like fancy bracelets that light up with the color of the user's aura whenever their services are required. Fast forward a thousand years to the mid-1990s, when Wenwu attempts to enter a village rumored to harbor mighty mystical, only to come face to face with village guardian Ying Li (Fala Chen from HBO's “The Undoing”).
In director Destin Daniel Cretton's hands, the ensuing scuffle, complete with slo-mo close-ups right out of a John Woo movie, plays like foreplay through friendly combat. (This is as close as the MCU comes to showing intercourse.) Wenwu and Li fall in love, and thus Shang-Chi is born. But a lot of stuff, mostly not good, happens in between that harmonious pairing and our first glance at Shang-Chi as a young adult. The movie jumps to present day to find the protagonist (Canadian actor Simu Liu) living in San Francisco under the Americanized name Shaun, not as some powerful corporate executive, but as a valet driver alongside platonic buddy Katy (Awkwafina).
It doesn't take long for the winsome, karaoke-loving duo to find themselves under attack by some menacing baddies in, of all places, an accordion transit bus. Seemingly mild-mannered Shaun suddenly displays the fighting skills of a martial arts pro, and the movie takes off like a rocket. Cretton, known for his intimate dramas (“Short Term 12,” “Just Mercy”), proves himself quite adept at mixing brawn with a sensitive touch, imbuing “Shang-Chi” with the youthful spirit that has largely eluded Jon Watts' Tom Holland-fronted “Spider-Man” adventures. “Shang-Chi” is not impervious to the usual MCU housekeeping nonsense, and there's a sizable narrative strand that involves putting out a fanboy fire regarding a villain introduced in a sequel that came out eight years ago. But Cretton wisely refrains from bombarding viewers with MCU references the way “Black Widow” did earlier this summer, much to its detriment.
Instead, Cretton etches immensely likable characters that bring down the defenses an MCU dissenter like myself might put up. That's a good thing, too, because “Shang-Chi” follows the setback/victory formula of many of its predecessors, down to the requisite group shots that immediately bring to mind “Black Panther's” fierce Wakandans. But there are details, particularly in the film's screenplay, credited to Cretton, Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, that insert culturally savvy observations into the narrative that make the film richer, the characters more endearing. (A clever throwaway moment has Shang-Chi trying to teach Katy how to properly pronounce his name.) The jokes don't get on your nerves like, say, the humor in the first “Ant-Man” did.
From where this critic is sitting, Cretton and his creative team have delivered the most purely enjoyable MCU release since “Ant-Man and the Wasp” back in 2018, awash in vibrant colors, vertiginous imagery and a considerable degree of character introspection. Even when things get more than a little overwrought in the final half hour, there's a genial charm to this tale of family ties and the quest to recognize one's self-worth. Not a bad way to close out the summer at the multiplexes. Can I actually put “MCU” and “good” in the same sentence for a change? Why, yes. Yes, I can.
“The Suicide Squad”: Turning back the clock to early August brings us to another comic book adaptation, a reboot/sequel that aims to absolve the DC Extended Universe from its past sins. More specifically, to atone for that aberrant monstrosity that was David Ayer's “Suicide Squad.” In that 2016 debacle, Warner Bros.' moneymaking venture into the lives of the superpowered and destructive hit rock bottom. It was a hot mess, the pits, bad news.
So the studio entrusted this new, ultraviolent chapter to James Gunn, aka Mr. Guardians of the Galaxy. Say this for “The Suicide Squad” (note the added “the” to tell it apart): it's not the dumpster fire the previous one was. Gunn takes full advantage of the film's R rating, which gives the “Slither” director a chance to indulge in the gore and mayhem from his pre-Marvel Studios days, However, with such freedom comes a mean streak that's always rubbed me the wrong way about his work. (It's there in the “Guardians” movies as well, albeit hindered by the MCU's PG-13 constraints.)
Like the previous film, “The Suicide Squad” centers around Task Force X, a motley crew of prison inmates, assembled by intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who agree to take on wildly dangerous missions in exchange for a reduction to their sentences. Among the mavericks along for the ride are Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) and a couple of holdovers from the prior installment: hunky Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) and cuckoo Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), aka the Joker's ex.
This time around, they're required to infiltrate Corto Maltese, a fictional South American island run by a corrupt government, and destroy a laboratory with Nazi ties and the hush-hush experiment being conducted there. If the story sounds simple, it actually needs to be in order to give each member of the film's massive cast their moment in the spotlight, even if it's just to say a couple of lines before they're unceremoniously dispatched. More often than not in all kinds of gruesome ways.
If the 2016 “Suicide Squad” was done in by studio meddling and too many cooks in the kitchen, “The Suicide Squad” lets Gunn run amok. The director peppers the proceedings with “f” bombs and copious bloodletting with the enthusiasm of teenage boys who've figured out the code to their cable TV or streaming service's parental controls. The slapdash shenanigans may be aimed squarely at grown-ups, but maturity is in scant supply. In addition, the film's portrayal of Latin American culture resorts to tired stereotypes more often than not. (Panama locations stand in for Corto Maltese.)
But once “The Suicide Squad” builds up to its climax, featuring a giant baddie shaped like a particular ocean denizen, Gunn gets his act together and indulges in the brand of sci-fi gore that put him on the map. This is one skillfully executed showdown that earns its destruction porn. The movie also features the most effective live-action depiction of Harley Quinn's pathology, a chilling interlacing of giddiness and cruelty.
Gunn gets in the zone, but it ends up being too little, too late. I'll take this mad-scientist toxic brew over his (way overpraised) “Guardians” films, even if what he's come up with here is ultimately more of a near miss.
“Free Guy”: The number one movie in the country for two weeks before Nia DaCosta's “Candyman” dethroned it last weekend, this gaming/AI romp is ostensibly a celebration of individuality in a world of ones and zeros, but it feels like a series of algorithms in search of a personality. Director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum,” “The Internship”) never met a high concept that he didn't turn into toothless pap, but here he hits a new low: a reinforcement of the status quo pretending to be a call to channel your inner rebel.
The film, a longtime passion project for star Ryan Reynolds, is the story of Guy, a lonely bank teller who discovers he's an NPC, a non-player character in an open-world game not that dissimilar from the “Grand Theft Auto” series. The nebbishy boy next door gradually discovers he has what it takes to be leading man material, even (drum roll, please) a leader and a hero. That journey is triggered by his encounter with the avatar of real-world player Millie (“Killing Eve's” Jodie Comer), sending the good looking artificial intelligence down a path that's more demolition derby than journey of self-discovery.
The building blocks are all in place for a nifty thrill ride like “Ready Player One.” (“Free Guy's” screenplay was co-written by Zak Penn, who helped adapt “RP1” for the screen.) But the film wears its influences on its sleeve with such inelegant obviousness that it turns into a checklist of better films: Guy's social anxiety is taken right out of “The LEGO Movie.” The way that putting on the sunglasses of a game player unearths hidden messages? Two points if you pegged the shout-out to John Carpenter's “They Live.” And so on.
The film is certainly well cast. “Stranger Things'” Joe Keery plays Millie's ex-gaming design collaborator, and Lil Rel Howery does what he can with the thankless role of Guy's best friend/comic relief. Levy and Reynolds probably thought they scored a bull's-eye by nabbing Taika Waititi to play the film's software company owner/capitalism junkie villain, but the “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Jojo Rabbit” director is pretty lousy in this. Not even a surprise celebrity cameo can bring this soulless corporate product to life.
“Free Guy” also chickens out in the romance department, teasing the possibility of a relationship between a human being and AI before it takes the safest escape route possible. But the most dispiriting part is the way it coasts on Reynolds' screen presence. Guy is supposed to be happy and genuinely kind, but he's at the center of a movie made by people who don't have a clue about how to write a nice person. What comes across is the illusion of likability, and so, it doesn't take long for the “Van Wilder” side of Reynolds' persona to come to the surface. Let's call the sorry spectacle “Free Guy” subjects viewers to what it is: an entitled jock trying to pass off as an underdog. This is a case of the emperor's new clothes, and this former Atari player can see right through the money-grubbing charade.
“Reminiscence”: Whereas “Free Guy” became a summer hit despite not being directly connected to any intellectual property, something of a rarity in the age of COVID, this ambitious neo-noir, set in a futuristic Miami beset by rising sea levels, opened to a paltry $2 million. The feature directing debut of Lisa Joy, the co-creator of HBO's “Westworld,” turns away from the cerebral pessimism of that series for something far more sentimental: a syrupy romance disguised as a hard boiled private eye yarn.
The film's opening shot, showing a partially submerged Magic City, is capable of sending a chill down many Miamians' spines. But Joy, who also wrote the screenplay, only uses the intriguing setting as window dressing for her tale of star-crossed lovers, underworld machinations and institutional corruption. A missed opportunity? Without a doubt, but she weaves a reasonably engaging web of slick contrivances nonetheless. The embittered inspector at the center of the voiceover-heavy narrative is Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), but the twist here is that the crime scenes are visual representations of people's memories.
Nick runs a business that lets people relive cherished memories by immersing themselves in some sort of water tank contraption. Enter Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a mysterious woman who walks into his bar, er, memory storeroom and asks to dig into her mind to find where she left some misplaced keys. A whirlwind romance follows. Then the lady vanishes without a trace. Watts (Thandiwe Newton), Nick's business partner and fellow military vet, urges him to forget the looker with femme fatale vibe, but our lovestruck hero won't be deterred until he finds her again.
As long as Joy focuses on Bannister's yearning for his blissful, short-lived romance, “Reminiscence” prevails over a truckload of shortcomings. There's a lot to find fault with: uneven pacing, wordy exposition that explains everything, then summarizes for those who weren't paying attention, lame crime subplot that's still hella muddled despite Joy's attempts to spell everything out.
And yet the darn thing works. The organizer of the advance screening I attended likened it to “Somewhere in Time,” that tearjerker from 1980 starring Christopher Reeve as a man who wills himself back to the 1910s through self-hypnosis to pursue the woman in an old photograph he sees at a Michigan hotel. The comparison is right on target, and how much you enjoy “Reminiscence” will likely hinge on how much that kind of rose-colored fare appeals to you. Me? It's the kind of cheese I live for.
The two-hour film bears the earmarks of a longer movie that's been whittled down, though it remains unclear whether or not studio tampering is to blame. What we're left with is a bit of a mess, but one that tackles big ideas and is not afraid to be corny. To call it good would be a stretch, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't leave the theater fairly satisfied. It straddles the line between Philip K. Dick and a Harlequin romance, and when was the last time a movie tried to pull that off? This is one megaflop that deserved a nicer happily ever after.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is now playing in wide release, including IMAX engagements at AMC Aventura, AMC Sunset Place, Regal South Beach and the AutoNation IMAX Theater in downtown Fort Lauderdale. “The Suicide Squad” continues its theatrical run and is available to stream on HBO Max through this Sunday. “Free Guy” continues its successful rollout, including at Silverspot Cinema in downtown Miami and The Landmark at Merrick Park. “Reminiscence's” showtimes have been reduced at most local theaters, but it appears to be going strong at Regal South Beach and the Silverspot. It's also streaming on HBO Max through Sept. 19.