The extended prologue to “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” personifies the best and worst of both worlds for Marvel Studios’—revealing the ultimate woes of the now-homogenized conveyor belt approach to copy-pasting genre spice on top of a formulaic recipe.
A grandiose throwback to large-scale, period wuxia films a la Zhang Yimou’s “Hero,” easily the most carefully composed and well-rounded character this side of “Black Panther,” takes center stage, and the storytelling reigns. His name is Wenwu, and he’s played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai, whom, I’ve recently learned, is sadly best known, or not known at all—by casual film buffs at least—for his roles in the aforementioned Jet Li flick, and “Infernal Affairs,” the movie on which Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” is based (he plays Leo’s character). Leung eats up the screen with little more than a look. You can’t take your eyes off him as he charges into battle, creating a mystical barrier as an energy force-field, allowing him to take on an army of archers on his own. The background details and composition work are distractingly flat though, and there’s an obvious disconnect between the choreography on screen and the painted animation being thrown on top of it in post-production. Much of the martial arts action will take your breath away, thanks to Leung’s ripely fierce presence and an aesthetic owed to Chinese masters of the genre, yet it all feels so unearned, entirely empty. But, considering how many eyes are on “Shang-Chi” perhaps we should be thanking the gods of cinema for introducing a new audience to one of the finest actors on the planet, at least.
Following the world-building info-dump however, we cut to modern day San Francisco, where we are introduced to “Shaun” (at least that’s what it reads on his valet tag), whom Marvel’s origin story format has already primed us to know will be the hero of our story (if in name and idea only). We also meet his best friend and soon-to-be plucky sidekick, Katy (played by Awkwafina; more on her name later). Minutes later, they are being attacked on the trolley—“Shaun” startling Katy by unleashing his epic hand-to-hand combat prowess on the assailants, which includes the lackey Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu); a character the movie somehow half-takes seriously when the mockery of Taserface is already an established thing.
The bus sequence is, overall, very impressive, and I threw my hands up a few times, although it reveals some needless miscalculations of staging excess and an over-reliance on throwing pseudo-shot transitions to the animation department. At one point, it features a side-scrolling video game track, complete with Liu-Kang flying sidekick, and its depth of field looks flatter than some Arkham City bonus levels. Again, the movie has issues when it comes to fitting staging on top of composition.
Being pretty shocked and shaken by this newfound barrage of information about her bestie, Katy (who snaps into Sandra Bullock “Speed” mode without effort) makes Shaun tell her the truth about who he is. Turns out, he’s Wenwu’s son, and he’s hiding from his destiny thanks to some daddy issues. Traveling to Macau to meet with his estranged sister (now running skyscraper fight clubs) Wenwu re-enters the narrative possibly sooner, and in a different fashion, than fans of these movies might expect. Its clear he’s meant to be the Big Bad, but by giving him an actual backstory (he doesn’t seek world domination, but rather wants to be reunited with the love of his life) and casting Leung in the role, the character kind of accidentally becomes the focus of the film. This is not aided by the fact that the very-talented Simu Liu was hired primarily for his stunt chops, and by placing him between a bonafide international icon and internet-era comedian, he ends having his own movie stolen out from under his own two feet.
Another issue – one the film shares with “Black Panther” – is the amusing but mishandled reintroduction of Trevor Campbell a.k.a. The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). A quick history lesson for those unfamiliar, the classic Iron Man nemesis is an exhibit-A example of Yellow Peril villains, a culturally appropriated, blatantly racist, Fu Manchu type. Shane Black admirably attempted to subvert expectations of the character in “Iron Man 3,” making him a mask for theatrical terrorism, but the problematic footnotes remain. Director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12“) and Co. attempt to reclaim the character via Wenwu, but the efforts come up just short. Added to that, Trevor becomes a kind of audience ride-along tour guide, much like Martin Freeman’s character in Ryan Coogler’s film. He’s best utilized during a imaginative bamboo forest chase in which the foliage comes alive like a magic maze aiming to eat its inhabitants, but then it also includes a typically Disneyfied cute plushy ex-machina in the form of Morris, a somewhat creepy, somewhat adorable, faceless peacock-turkey creature, who is Shang-Chi and Katy’s guide, alongside Trevor, to the ethereal pocket kingdom of Ta Lo.
Like Wakanda, Ta Lo is presented as a kind of impossible utopia, one whose existence is threatened by the wrath of Wenwu. In a major missed opportunity, the legendary Michelle Yeoh plays Jiang Nan, a guardian of the mystical dimension, but the “Wing Chun” star never gets to go toe-to-toe with Leung, and, aside from one training sequence involving leaf cyclones, she feels largely wasted and tacked on.
Without getting too caught up in the CGI-throes of the climax, “Shang-Chi” devolves into something resembling Marvel Studios’ equivalent of “The Battle of Five Armies,” giant dragons and dark dwellers battling it out while the human characters defy the laws of physics and ignore gravity at will. Some of this works very well in keeping with the film’s ‘Crouching Tiger’ touches—a couple of times, Leung comes close to evoking something close to a live-action Dragon Ball character soaring through the air. Think “Man of Steel” by way of “House of Flying Daggers,” if I’m reductively over-simplifying. A majority of what’s captured on screen rings very in-line with the CG Rhino’s in “Black Panther,” but when Shang-Chi and Wenwu go at it, the strength of the action wrapped up in emotional turmoil lets the blows land.
But I must address an elephant in the room. Awkwafina’s Katy is quickly trained to become an Ta Lo archer, and the foreshadowing of how she will factor into the climax is painfully face-palming (“Black arrow, you’ve never failed me“). Add to that, her name is freaking Katy! Kate Bishop already exists—and is finally about to be introduced to mainstream audiences, much to this writer’s chagrin—so who in Marvel’s creative department didn’t do their homework here? Its such a thoughtless mistake which sums up the lack of care producer Kevin Feige and the department at large often take when it comes to creative verisimilitude. Composing moments and characters that stand on their own matter less than making sure all the connective tissue fits, even if it is done retroactively, and is full of holes at this point. Luckily—sorry if I’m being a broken record here—Leung’s remarkable performances almost nullifies these issues; but, at the same time, he makes you keenly aware that Shang-Chi is not the star of his own movie, which is, you know, kind of a problem for a supposed-to-be breakout character origin story.
Cretton’s film does admirably work regarding themes of worthiness, self-loathing and acceptance—what it’s like to be caught between two different worlds of expectations, and no matter which choice you make somewhat might see it to be the wrong one. Motifs of fear, revenge, and toxic parentage come through strongly, but one can’t help but wonder how great a movie might’ve been made had Feige been willing to hire a filmmaker like Zhang Yimou and give him a blank check/slate (was never happening, but one can dream; cue: The Cranberries). When it comes to issues of Asian American representation the movie is two steps forward, one step back. Early on, there’s a joke about “not all Asians” being Korean, soon followed by a cut to karaoke club gag. Benedict Wong shows up in a forced cameo, seemingly only being in the film because he’s the only established Asian character of note the MCU has at this point (don’t get me started on the end credits stamps).
A good summation of the film’s shortcomings is Shaun’s bedroom—the walls on which sport movie posters for “The Godfather,” “The Warriors,” and “Kung Fu Hustle.” All classics of their genres and all of which leave their mark on this one, but influence doesn’t really matter when your aesthetic succumbs to corporate blandness, stealing its strengths from previously ignored shadows. “Shang-Chi” is a film made with resolve, yet part of me can’t help but resent its laziness.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” opens in theaters Sept. 3