Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (12A) ****
Candyman (15) ****
Having closed the book on the first big phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the disappointingly limp Black Widow, the prospect of another slew of interlinked comic book movies fronted by new-to-the-big-screen characters might not seem all that appealing to anyone over the age of 15. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, though, is a blast – a funny, pulpy martial arts movies that draws from the big wuxia crossover successes of the early 2000s – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers, Hero – and fuses them with the quippy, nerdy, endearingly goofy character work Marvel does really well.
Condensing a thousand years of backstory into the opening five minutes, the film quickly sets up the importance of the titular ten rings via the story of its hero’s parents, a power-hungry warrior turned terrorist leader (played by Hero star Tony Leung) and the civilisation-protecting woman who defeated him before becoming his wife and bearing his children. Fast forward to present day San Francisco and that kid is now an under-achieving parking valet who goes by the name of Shaun and is played by Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu. Shaun spends most of his spare time with Katie (Awkwafina — hilarious as ever), his wise-cracking slacker best friend. But when his father’s goons show up to snatch a precious pendent his late mother gave him, he reveals himself to be quite the martial artist.
What follows is an amusing spin on all the hero’s journey tropes as Shaun comes clean to Katie about his heritage, reclaims his original name (the titular Shang-Chi) and embarks on a globe-trotting mission to track down his estranged sister (Meng’er Zhang) and stop their father from destroying the world. Along the way, the film – directed by indie stalwart Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) – peppers in backstory with amusing asides and delivers lots of fluid, balletic action, which makes a change in a franchise that too often revels in throwing characters through buildings or having actors do those hokey abracadabra poses that usually result in CGI fireballs shooting out of their hands.
Liu – who’s done time as a stunt performer earlier in his career – has the skills and the charisma to make it work, but he’s aided by great support from Awkwafina, Leung and, in the latter parts of the film, Michelle Yeoh. It also helps that the film is wittier than more recent fare serving up an amusing call-back to Shane Black’s hilarious Iron Man 3 that plays like a sly takedown of the more intolerant Marvel fans who despised it.
The original Candyman was something of an auteur horror oddity when it came out in 1992. Adapted from a Clive Barker short story by Brit director Bernard Rose, its eponymous bogeyman (played by Tony Todd) was hook-handed son of a former slave whose murdered spirit could be manifested by saying his name in the mirror five times. As such, Candyman's racially charged backstory had a political dimension from which Rose didn’t shy away, boldly setting it in Chicago’s gang-ravaged Cabrini-Green housing project and turning Candyman’s terrorising of an entitled white academic (“Be my victim”) into a provocative exploration of the ways in which historical trauma is processed and understood.
If its reach exceeded its grasp at times, its core ideas have now been refined in smart ways in co-writer/director Nia DaCosta’s update. Less reboot than real-time sequel, the new Candyman picks up the story almost three-decades on and that continuity is key to its power. In keeping with the central image of a mirror as a gateway between the past and present (the Candyman himself can be read as a reflection of slavery’s stain on America), DaCosta – who co-wrote the film with producer Jordan Peele (Get Out) – designs shots and set-pieces that provide a reverse perspective on the original to both symbolise how this version is more of an insider’s take on the story’s racial politics while also setting up her thematic pre-occupation with the way things rot from the inside out.
That theme is teased out via a her protagonists: a young Black artist called Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his partner Briana (Teyonah Parris), a successful curator on the verge of breaking into the white-dominated art world establishment. Having just moved into a gentrified apartment building on what used to be Cabrini-Green, it’s not long before Anthony is incorporating the legend of Candyman into his work in an effort to reignite his stalled career. Bloody mayhem duly follows after said work makes its debut as part of a group show of up-and-coming artists, with DaCosta taking plenty of satirical shots at the racial insularity of the art world, but also the way artists of colour are expected to capitalise on their own trauma to fulfil the preconceptions of critics, dealers and collectors. But the film also has a sophisticated approach to its own depiction of violence. Partially born out of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, this is a movie in which police sirens rather than orchestral cues facilitate jump scares, historical violence is depicted via William Kentridge-style shadow puppets, and set-pieces deliver gore in inventive ways than don’t simply bludgeon us with forensic close-ups. This is a stylish work with a lot on its mind.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in cinemas from 3 September; Candyman is cinemas now.
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