Categories
Action Adventure Remakes

Mulan (2020)

Mulan (2020)
Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin
Cast: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong
Genre: Action, Drama
Country: United States

Rating: 2 out of 5.

If there’s any silver lining to Mulan – and there are not many – it’s the decency to experiment with the source material, 1998’s animated Mulan (better in almost every conceivable metric, unsurprisingly). This experimentation ends up flat and arbitrary, but at least it does something, even if that something isn’t good. But when we’re this deep in the throes of Disney’s live-action remake cycle, at this point a rather striking display of extracting every ounce of charm for cash, almost elegantly so in its factory-esque efficiency, we take what we can get.

Because let’s not kid ourselves, friends: 2020’s Mulan is not great. Dare I say, it’s bad. Fine on a technical level, sure, but remarkably inept on an emotional and soulful level, taking the power of the “Ballad of Mulan” legend – a simple story that lends itself easily to resonance – and addressing it with all the grace filmmakers absolutely rushing through said story can bring.

Which is a funny thing, given 1998’s Mulan pretty definitively laid the blueprint for soul here (within the Disney paradigm, anyway). Yet, Mulan is interested in eschewing the lightheartedness of yore in favour of something a little more serious, and you see attempts of this everywhere: aside from choice sequences, the film’s palette is bleak, relying on neutral colours and grey hues; sprinkles of light comedy are few and far between; the creature sidekicks are gone, save for a gaudy phoenix representation of Mushu (once portrayed by Eddie Murphy, now infrequent window dressing); and everything, generally, feels dourer. So imagine the dissonance when Mulan hurls these efforts out the door by making Mulan (Yifei Liu) herself a fucking superhero. The first time we see her, as a child (portrayed by Crystal Rao), she’s parkouring down rooftops and as an adult she’s doing all sorts of gymnastics, mincing through enemy armies with complete ease.

Shifting Mulan into a Mary Sue role does zero good, robbing her of any meaningful progression or character. Where Mulan ’98 is a good fighter, this isn’t innate, and her success stems from perseverance. Mulan ’20, uh, does not share this. Where Mulan ’98 learns lessons about fighting for and staying true to what you believe is right, Mulan ’20 doesn’t learn any lessons at all: her shame about avoiding “truth” is entirely predicated on lying about being a male soldier, which fundamentally misunderstands the internal conflict Mulan ’98 perfected. A lot of the dull characterization can also be attributed to Liu’s terrible performance, poker-facing the entire movie and regurgitating lines about loyalty, family, etc. with a stunning lack of emotion (personal favourite moment: Mulan trying to motivate her colleagues before heading into a grisly battle, which Liu starts by flatly stating “listen to me”). You could argue this is due to a language barrier, and that’s reasonable on paper, but she’s won the Chinese Razzie Award equivalent in 2012, 2013, and 2016, so you do the math.

The majority of Mulan‘s supporting characters are so non-specific that it doesn’t bother giving them much time of day (the musical numbers are sorely missed, particularly their ability to quickly and nicely establish characters) – except for Xianniang (Li Gong), a bird witch who really adds nothing in the end. Mulan sets up Xianniang as a foil to Mulan, presenting a scenario of two powerful women putting their lives on the line for people who will never accept them (in Mulan’s case, the “good” army, and in Xianniang’s case, the “bad” army) – the “good” army threatens to execute Mulan upon discovering she’s female and yet she stays with them (plus they accept her literally two scenes later), whereas Xianniang betrays her army, clashing with the movie’s endless mantra of loyalty, and we’re just like “oh… okay.” Xianniang’s story never connects with the broader themes the movie aims for (you could cut her out of the movie and nothing would change), meaning we’re left with a needless character who takes screentime away from those who desperately need it, like Mulan’s various army colleagues and awkward kind-of-but-not love interest Honghui (Yoson An). And Xianniang’s the most prominent supporting role, so it’s needless to point out the character situation in Mulan is dire, to say nothing of Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the film’s villain, who just flashes crazy eyes and dumps exposition.

The bare minimum Mulan could achieve was looking nice, and thankfully it does accomplish this (with caveats). Mandy Walker’s cinematography does an excellent job with the occasional bursts of colour on offer, with her best work in the opening scenes, which look warm and very inviting, as well as the fireworks scene towards the end, which is just lovely spectacle. The rest of the movie is surprisingly grey, as mentioned before, and I get they were going for the juxtaposition of the Imperial Army’s red costuming against the grey of bleak war, but those reds don’t pop as much as they could and those greys command the palette. And the movie’s kind of a slog as is, so being a slog and depressing isn’t a compelling combo. On the costuming, a lot of it is merely okay, some of it is strangely bad, like an early scene with Mulan riding a horse and it looks like she’s wearing an artisanal autumn coat from Etsy. Grant Major’s outstanding production design picks up much slack (especially the circular living hamlet Mulan and her family reside within, it’s so good) and none of these sets look artificial, instead taking on liveliness of their own.

None of this is helped by David Coulson’s pretty awful editing. We’re frequently yanked from one scene to another with little regard to rhythm, posing two net effects: a) scenes aren’t allowed to breathe since the movie’s so eager to plow through to the next, stripping them of any emotional resonance; b) the action scenes are not fun and we’re often lost in time and space. Though, to be fair, these action scenes aren’t great to begin with, as Mulan is eager to take a pastiche of Asian action movie tropes (think kung fu movies with a touch of Bollywood) and… that’s it. There’s no real grace to the choreography, almost as if the movie is content to be like, “Hey, we did this thing. We didn’t do it very well, but we did the thing, so that’s cool on its own! Right? Hello?” It speaks to Mulan‘s tendency to want different things – a stirring story about a daughter honouring her family, a fun stylized action-adventure, an update that celebrates Mulan ’98 and the original fable – and its inability to put in the effort to actually achieve any of these things.

It’s worse off given the movie wants to take after the Ballad of Mulan more so than Mulan ’98, but it clearly derives its power from Mulan ’98 – hitting more or less the exact same plot beats, relying on the viewer’s nostalgia and knowledge of the animated Mulan to inform certain scenes because this one sure as hell isn’t interested in doing it, like Mulan taking her father’s sword, which in Mulan ’98 is pensive and empowering, but here she just takes the sword and that’s that (if I were playing stupid and wasn’t familiar with Mulan ’98, I would struggle to figure out what really drives Mulan here). And when you have to rely on another movie to provide your movie’s soul, your movie has no good reason to exist. Add in the deeply unfortunate associations with Xinjiang – including a shoutout to the government bodies responsible for the internment of millions of Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps – and overall there’s precious little to redeem Mulan, and even fewer reasons to recommend it.

Categories
Action Adventure Superheroes

The Old Guard (2020)

The Old Guard (2020)
Director: Gina Prince-Blythewood
Writer: Greg Rucka
Cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts
Genre: Action, Adventure
Country: United States

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Immortal humans have been a tried and true narrative device for centuries, dating as far back as the Wandering Jew in the 1200s. It has given us many icons, using immortality to tell a story of extraordinary beings and their equally remarkable lives, often highlighting fundamental truths about humanity and the values of life and death. When The Old Guard‘s very beginning gives away the immortality hook that’s “revealed” ten minutes later anyway, in one of the shittiest recent forms of in media res, it was evident that it would not join any notable echelons, nor would it be a very good movie on its own.

The Old Guard follows a group of immortal mercenaries, led by Andromache (Charlize Theron), colloquially known as “Andy”, as they traverse around and try to do good in the world. When they’re discovered by CIA agent James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), pharmaceutical tycoon Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) tries to get a hold of them to determine the cause of their immortality and commercialize it. But also the group senses a new immortal – Nile (KiKi Layne), a U.S. marine in Afghanistan – and they take her under their wing, despite her resistance.

Alright, so we have a I-see-the-beats-from-miles-away story, but that’s not super important, right? The Old Guard‘s all about the cool immortals, after all. Too bad the characters are all dead flat for the first hour, with Charlize Theron doing a shockingly bad job at playing the “I’m tired and grumpy and wear sunglasses and call people ‘kid’ because I have BACKSTORY that I’m not going to tell you right away because I’m TIRED and GRUMPY of everyone’s shit” character, emoting in such a non-subtle manner that I’m not sure if she’s actively bored or just angry with the role (I later found out she produced the movie, so make of that what you will). Andy and her main sidekick, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), drink a bit, but it doesn’t affect them, as this is a movie that believes arbitrary actions equal personalities and signify deeper inner lives. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is immediately awful, borderline video-gamey (I heard variations of “go get some rest” around three times in 20-some minutes) and giving us nothing to sink into.

This bleeds into the overarching issue that The Old Guard believes immortality is a story unto itself, and that the concept is more interesting than it is, even though this is far from a mysterious take on it. It’s like if we got a Star Wars movie purely about the workings of the Force – nobody would care about such a thing, it’s not very intriguing, but that’s because Star Wars can, and does, use the Force as a platform to tell richer stories. The Old Guard doesn’t take advantage of this principle, being more content to focus just on immortality and the predictable long-term inner turmoil it causes. Then it has the audacity to give us the Evil Big Pharma Villain storyline – and the villain is fucking terrible, an irritating non-character running through the most basic motions – and the Hesitant Rookie storyline and call it a day.

Insult to injury, the ending clearly sets up a sequel with the one plot thread that would’ve been great here, focusing on Andy’s ancient sidekick Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), who was sentenced to an eternity underwater in an iron maiden, recurrently resuscitating and drowning for centuries. It’s a nightmare and the flashback sequence is easily the most affecting scene in The Old Guard, laden with terror from both Ngo and Theron. The flashback sequences, no matter how fleeting, bring great life to the movie, transporting us to times and places more vibrant and inherently exciting than the comparatively sterile modern settings we’re taken to otherwise. And we are taken to many places in The Old Guard, but they all feel like window dressing – big panning shots to give you a sense of scale for the movie, a sense of adventure, but the lack of emotion and purpose (it takes forever to realize that the only conflict happening here is Evil Big Pharma) makes it incredibly difficult to get enthralled by any of it.

Much of this comes down to the characterization, or lack thereof. Aside from Andy, Nile has great promise during her first scenes, but descends into boilerplate (again, Hesitant Rookie who obviously has a change of heart) and Layne isn’t very convincing. Ejiofor is wasted in a neutered, boring role where he just exists. Schoenaerts humanizes Booker quite well, presenting a man tormented and rash by the loss of uncountable loved ones over the centuries, while Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are lovers who bonded after being initial enemies in the Crusades. Credit is very due to The Old Guard for giving us a to-the-point, genuinely loving gay couple, summarized extremely well by Joe in a speech about love and its eternal possibilities, easily the best character moment in the film. The Old Guard doesn’t focus so much on these characters, meaning moments like that are few and far between.

Then you have the action, the solace I sought most, and The Old Guard can’t even do that very well. Not only is it sparse, but it’s dry, lacking energy and any sort of momentum to propel the scenes, save for the very final fight. The first fight, taking place in a desert compound, is particularly bad – choppy editing that disorients us in the compound’s space, cuts too quickly between the immortals for us to get a good impression of their capabilities. That problem doesn’t persist much, thankfully, but The Old Guard fails to let us bask in its action, and what’s good – like Andy solo-fighting military personnel by an old house – is over way too soon to have considerable impact. These are quick action sequences, giving us a few flips here, a few blade slices there, yet there’s no real verve to it, and it’s so brisk that there’s nothing to really stare at and admire, which is a shame when we’re blessed with R-rated action like John Wick that treats its fights like bloody little ballets. Hell, The Old Guard severely lags compared to Theron’s own action vehicles, lacking the grit and adrenaline of Mad Max: Fury Road and the intoxicating style of Atomic Blonde. It’s not the editing horror story known as Æon Flux, but your bar should not be “well, at least it wasn’t fucking Æon Flux.”

So where does this leave us? Most of the characters are boring and surprisingly unintelligent despite some having literal centuries-worth of knowledge, the action isn’t exciting, lacking any discernible style or flair (my notes include one shot that pans up at Merrick’s headquarters in the third act, and it’s such a hideous shot on many levels), and the story is as wholly pedestrian as they come. The soundtrack is horrific, plugging in pop music that doesn’t jive at all with action that begs for a hefty operatic score. I realize The Old Guard is based on the comic book of the same name (I’ve never read it, to be fair), but a movie’s shortcomings can’t be absolved by sole virtue of being an adaptation.

All that said, there are good ideas scattered about, often in the form of the immortals’ actions throughout history, and I’d much rather see that movie than one that can’t even do the kindness of being entertaining popcorn fare.