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Review by Rich Cline |
dir Cate Shortland
scr Eric Pearso
prd Kevin Feige
with Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, Olga Kurylenko, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Shaina West
release US/UK 9.Jul.21
21/US Marvel 2h13
Is it streaming?
It took so long for Marvel to get round to telling this character's story that it has become a prequel set five years ago, between Civil War and Infinity War. Thankfully, director Cate Shortland infuses rich dynamics in the relationships and a more character-based approach to the action. It still ends up engulfed with overwrought effects in an apocalyptic wasteland, but there's an emotional depth that pays off.
In 2016, as the Avengers turn on each other, Natasha (Johansson) gets help from fixer Mason (Fagbenle) to hide out in Norway. But her former Russian masters track her down, as does Yelena (Pugh), who was Natasha's girlhood sleeper cell sister two decades earlier in Ohio. They reunite and team up in Budapest, then decide to free their "dad", super-charged agent Alexei (Harbour), from an Arctic prison. Next they drop in on "mom" Melina (Weisz), asking for her help to locate the mysterious Red Room base of their vicious old puppetmaster Dreykov (Winston).
The refreshingly straightforward plot is livened up with pointed, visceral flashbacks as well as superbly choreographed hand-to-hand combat and chase sequences. This makes the film feel more like a ripping female-centric entry into the Bourne or Bond franchises. A variety of locations are strikingly deployed to add visual textures, while Shortland neither celebrates the violence nor lets the quieter scenes become flippant, instead adding dramatic undercurrents and back-stories that carefully highlight the tension between this fractured faux family. This also allows the cast to bring the audience in much closer.
As always with this character, Johansson combines outrageous physicality with a dark sense of gravitas, turning an efficient killer into someone we enjoy rooting for. Her interaction with the fabulous Pugh is terrific, whether they're fighting with fists or fighting back tears. And their witty banter is perfectly gauged, such as when Yelena teases Natasha about her fight poses. Both Weisz and Harbour expertly add their own scene-stealing touches in this understandably taut family reunion. While Winstone at least provides some swaggering bluster in a rather thankless megavillain role.
It's a shame that the film is watered down with the usual lazy Marvel plot twists, corny tech and requisite face-offs. Everything else about this stand-alone thriller is far above Marvel's usual effects-swamped standard, especially the evocative prologue and snappy post-credits sting. In its exploration of the true meaning of family, the script manages to reject sentimentality and overcome the usual sappy cliches. And hopefully Pugh will be allowed to bring some of this weight to the wider franchise.
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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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