‘Black Pan­ther’ a win­ner thanks to tal­ented cast, well­done ac­tion se­quences

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Mark Mes­zoros mmes­zoros@news-her­ald.com @ MarkMes­zoros on Twit­ter

Un­less you’ve been liv­ing un­der a gi­ant hunk of vi­bra­nium, you’re likely aware of the early buzz sur­round­ing “Black Pan­ther.”

The lat­est en­try in Dis­ney­owned Mar­vel Stu­dios’ Mar­vel Cine­matic Uni­verse has en­joyed crit­ics and oth­ers who’ve seen it far in ad­vance fall­ing all over them­selves to pro­claim it all kinds of won­der­ful.

So does the story of Chad­wick Bose­man’s T’Challa, prince and pow­er­ful pro­tec­tor of the fic­tional African na­tion of Wakanda, live up to the hype? Well, yeah, it pretty much does. Hey, look, the bones of this largely ex­cel­lent su­per­hero ad­ven­ture are those of your typ­i­cal Mar­vel movie; you’ll find the stan­dard in­gre­di­ents of an ad­mirable if im­per­fect hero, an ob­ses­sively driven vil­lain, high-oc­tane ac­tion se­quences and the like.

But it’s the ex­tra lay­ers of “Black Pan­ther” — the very fine per­for­mances, the deft di­rec­tion of Ryan Coogler and, yes, the im­pact of hav­ing a largely black cast — that help it stand out, rather proudly, from the su­per­hero crowd.

T’Challa and his al­ter ego, the masked hero Black Pan­ther, were in­tro­duced in 2016’s “Cap­tain Amer­ica: Civil War,” an “Avengers”-like su­per­hero joinup (and fight-each-other) romp.

Af­ter a flash­back to early 1990s Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, that will prove im­por­tant later (and, no­tably, boasts the great Ster­ling K. Brown of “This Is Us”), T’Challa’s stand-alone story be­gins in earnest with him mourn­ing the loss of his father and the king of Wakanda, T’Chaka, and pre­par­ing to in­herit his man­tle.

Fol­low­ing a mis­sion with Okoye (Danai Gurira) — head of the Dora Mi­laje, the all-fe­male Wakan­dan Spe­cial Forces, and the coun­try’s best fighter other than his high­ness — in which he pre­dictably “froze” at the sight of the beau­ti­ful Nakia (Lupita Ny­ong’o) — a War Dog, a Wakan­dan spy who works in other coun­tries to re­port what she ob­serves — T’Challa and his crew fly above the mist, moun­tains and wildlife of his coun­try in a space­ship-like craft.

“This never gets old,” he says, as the craft shoots through an in­vis­i­ble bar­rier to re­veal a hid­den high-tech me­trop­o­lis be­yond it.

Wakanda is home to co­pi­ous amounts of the afore­men­tioned vi­bra­nium, a strong, mag­i­cally and in­cred­i­bly ridicu­lously named ele­ment that has al­lowed the na­tion to de­velop in­cred­i­ble tech­nol­ogy — in­no­va­tions kept from the out­side world. (A com­pelling so­ciopo­lit­i­cal theme cours­ing through the veins of “Black Pan­ther” is whether Wakanda has been cor­rect or self­ish in not shar­ing its po­ten­tially cul­ture-shift­ing ad­vance­ments with strug­gling cul­tures, in­clud­ing its African neigh­bors.)

An elab­o­rate river cer­e­mony to crown T’Challa king cul­mi­nates at mag­nif­i­cent, cas­cad­ing falls with a fe­ro­cious com­bat chal­lenge from ri­val Jabari tribe leader M’Baku (Win­ston Duke) in which T’Challa must prove his worth.

How­ever, his real trou­bles lie ahead with the story’s real vil­lains. Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue, in­tro­duced in 2015’s “Age of Ul­tron,” is a bulky-and-brutish crim­i­nal long wanted in Wakanda for steal­ing vi­bra­nium, while Erik Kill­mon­ger (Michael B. Jor­dan) is an un­known but highly skilled and fierce foe with whom T’Challa and his forces will have to con­tend.

Also in the mix are Leti­tia Wright (“Ur­ban Hymn,” “Glas­gow Girls”), as Shuri, the coun­try’s top sci­en­tist and in­no­va­tor and T’Challa’s younger sis­ter — and ba­si­cally the Q to his James Bond; Angela Bas­sett (“Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story,” “Lon­don Has Fallen”), as Romonda, mother of T’Challa and Shuri; Daniel Kalu­uya (“Get Out,” “Si­cario”), as W’Kabi, the head of the se­cu­rity for the Wakanda’s Border Tribe and the sig­nif­i­cant other of Okoye; For­est Whi­taker (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Lee Daniels’ “The But­ler”), as Zuri, the spir­i­tual leader of Wakanda and a close friend of the late T’Chaka; and Martin Free­man (“The Hob­bit” trilogy, “Sher­lock”), repris­ing the role of CIA agent Everett K. Ross, in­tro­duced in “Cap­tain Amer­ica: Civil War.”

While it takes one short­cut that feels just a lit­tle un­sat­is­fy­ing but likely was made to keep things mov­ing, the other­wise well­crafted story from Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole (“The Peo­ple v. O.J. Simp­son: Amer­i­can Crime Story”) gives all the key play­ers the op­por­tu­nity to make an im­pres­sion, which they do.

Not sur­pris­ingly, though, much of the stand­out work is turned in by Bose­man, whose mem­o­rable work in­cludes por­tray­ing re­al­life no­ta­bles Jackie Robin­son (“42”) and James Brown (“Get on Up”) and who last year added Thur­good Mar­shall (“Mar­shall”) to that im­pres­sive check­list. His T’Challa is noble, in­tel­li­gent, com­posed and phys­i­cally im­pres­sive.

His phys­i­cal pres­ence is cer­tainly matched by that of Jor­dan, the tal­ented star of Coogler’s pre­vi­ous films “Fruit­vale Sta­tion” (2013) and “Creed” (2015). (It’s no shock Jor­dan ap­pears to be in “Creed” shape con­sid­er­ing the box­ing drama’s se­quel is due later this year.) He’s also fas­ci­nat­ingly fiery as Kill­mon­ger, who is a bet­ter-than-av­er­age vil­lain in part be­cause he’s not con­sumed with rul­ing the world — or, at least, not ex­actly.

Coogler gets solid sup­port­ing work from Ny­ong’o (“Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens,” “12 Years a Slave”) and bet­ter than that from Gurira, who’s al­most un­rec­og­niz­able from her beloved char­ac­ter on “The Walking Dead,” Mi­chonne. (To say that Gurira is miss­ing Mi­chonne’s sig­na­ture dread­locks would be an un­der­state­ment.) Mean­while, Serkis (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the “Planet of the Apes” trilogy), who’s seem­ingly been busy in the gym beef­ing up, makes the most of a rare chance to do non-mo­tion-cap­ture work. Klaue is a fun char­ac­ter here.

For his part, Coogler just con­tin­ues to im­press. It can­not be easy to make a real cre­ative mark in the highly planned-out and well-co­or­di­nated MCU, but Coogler does just that. “Black Pan­ther” may not have quite the cul­tural im­pact as “Fruit­vale” sta­tion or the emo­tional punch as “Creed,” but it’s highly im­pres­sive blend of char­ac­ter mo­ments and ac­tion. To the lat­ter point, a car chase/bat­tle through the streets of an Asian city and the oblig­a­tory cli­mac­tic fight be­tween Black Pan­ther and Kill­mon­ger are done with real flair.

Go­ing into the year, you’d have ex­pected the best MCU film to be this sum­mer’s highly an­tic­i­pated “Avengers: In­fin­ity War,” which will bring to­gether seem­ingly all of the es­tab­lished Mar­vel he­roes for one epic ad­ven­ture.

How­ever, this smaller, more cul­tur­ally mean­ing­ful su­per­hero tale will be tough to beat.


Michael B. Jor­dan, left, and Chad­wick Bose­man in a scene from Mar­vel Stu­dios’ “Black Pan­ther.”


A scene from Mar­vel Stu­dios’ “Black Pan­ther.”

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