Tony Leung steals the show in the latest Marvel offering
‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’, the latest in an endless series of Marvel Cinematic Universe tentpole pictures, is the kind of cheesy action B-movie we used to get a lot of in the 1980s. It has magical dragons, kung-fu set pieces, tortured and occasionally teary family dynamics, and broad creature comedy that stops just short of fart noises. ‘Shang-Chi’ aims to be the Chinese version of Marvel’s ‘Black Panther.’ It never gets close. No one is going to nominate this movie for an Oscar. But it works well on its own good-natured and occasionally exciting terms.
SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Written by: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Starring: Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Fala Chen
Running time: 132 mins
When we meet Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu from Kim’s Convenience, he’s a San Francisco slacker who parks cars for a living alongside his best buddy, Katy. But Katy (Awkwafina) doesn’t know that “Shaun” is actually the trained assassin son of a semi-immortal Chinese warrior and a mystical wuxia witch from another dimension. These are the sorts of things you should tell your best friend. But like all true heroes, Shang Chi is trying to protect those he loves.
A plot begins and there’s an exciting fight scene on a San Francisco city bus. Shang-Chi and Katy somehow find the budget to immediately fly coach to Macao. Here we meet Shang Chi’s sister, played by the Chinese actress Meng’er Zhang, who apparently is making her big-screen debut. She’s OK, and Simu Liu is a handsome and affable good-natured brick, but the movie really belongs to Tony Leung, who plays Shang-Chi’s father, Wenwu. Leung is one of the all-time great screen actors, known for his roles in John Woo action movies and the moody romances of Wong Kar-Wai. It’s as if Tom Hanks or Jimmy Stewart stepped out of the shadows and started zapping people with magical space rings.
So though the ‘Shang-Chi’ movie is really just a dopey secondary or tertiary comic-book project, Leung’s performance gives it a little extra significance and depth. In the Shang-Chi comic books, the father-villain was a long-nailed mustache twirling stereotype literally named “Fu Manchu”.
In the Shang-Chi movie, on the other hand, the father is The Mandarin, a tortured and handsome romantic anti-hero who has just as much screen time as the main character himself. His story forms the movie’s moral and emotional center, and is way more interesting than Shang-Chi’s paint-by-numbers hero’s journey. And that’s just one way the ‘Shang-Chi’ movie busts up stereotypes.
The “strong female character” of Shang-Chi’s sister is a bit of a cliché at this point. Even the wise magical auntie played by Michelle Yeoh feels tired. But Shang-Chi and Katy are a male-female friend duo who clearly love each other without a hint of sexual tension. And the movie’s director, former indie-film guy Destin Daniel Cretton, gives the few normal at-home scenes in San Francisco apartments a realistic, natural tone. The movie’s attempts to portray some sort of magical interdimensional super-Chinese Brigadoon fall kind of flat. But the day-to-day life of Chinese people in America feel lived-in, which is somewhat radical for a Marvel project.
‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ suffers from too much backstory and a non-linear narrative structure that feels tiresome after a while. And the final battle sequence over-relies on CGI and is also way too dark. For a movie about a kung-fu master, there’s not nearly enough kung-fu, considering that Tony Leung is Ip Man himself. You can get better pure fighting in any random Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan number. ‘Shang-Chi’ isn’t some sort of genre masterpiece. It’s not even in the upper tier of Marvel movies. But it is good, old-fashioned dorky B-movie fun.