For decent chunks of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it’s almost impressive how much Tony Leung grabs of ahold of this whole movie. Though he’s not this film’s lead — that would be Simu Liu as Shang-Chi — the Hong Kong screen titan is every bit its star. For large swaths of people, this new Marvel superhero joint will very well introduce them to one of the last true movie stars of his generation. And that very well is likely this film’s best quality. As an actor who moves through the frame with impossible grace, Leung plays Xu Wenwu, a centuries-old Chinese warlord and the bearer of those titular ten rings, Tolkien-esque armbands that have made him immortal, invincible and ever lustful for more power. He’s the latest portrayal of the Mandarin, a Stan Lee and Don Heck creation that dates back to the ’60s and skewed quite heavily into Asian stereotype throughout the years. Casting Leung amounts as a feat of reclamation: This Mandarin is not just a villain reborn but also a bright summation of the actor’s remarkable career.
You might see flashes of Lueng’s roles in Lust, Caution, Hero or his many collaborations with Wong Kar-wai. Or I just might be overstating the more cinephilic case for this movie, especially since the reckless juxtaposition of words like “Marvel” and “cinema” has been known to cause some disagreement. Nevertheless, these allusions and associations feel like the product of some shrewd dramatic calculus by the director Destin Daniel Cretton. Leung’s presence gives the movie an extra-cinematic kick, a winking connection to an inexhaustible Asian canon of romantic dramas, underworld thrillers and martial-arts epics. It also provides an arresting entry point into a hero’s origin story that tries, at least, to rise above Marvel business-as-usual.
Notably reworking the origins of its character, the movie leaps ahead several years to catch up with Wenwu and his martial artist wife, Jiang Li’s (Fala Chen), grown son, Shang-Chi (Liu). Despite his extraordinary parentage, he’s living a fairly ordinary life in San Francisco. His mother is dead and his father is nowhere to be seen. Shang-Chi works as a valet driver along with his friend and fellow slacker, Katy (Awkwafina), whose skills behind the wheel come in handy when a bunch of thugs ambush them one day on the bus. It’s a shock to Katy and likely some in the audience when her goofy best bud unleashes a dazzling concoction of kung fu moves — abilities that were drilled into him by the father who abandoned him, but who now appears to be calling him home. There are a few times when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings suggests an unusually demented comedy of cross-generational Asian conflict, in which the usual clashing sensibilities — East and West, traditional and modern — play out on a world-threatening supernatural stage. In this interpretation, Wenwu looms as the big bad dad to Shang-Chi, the gifted underachiever who’s gone West and gone soft. Caught somewhere in between is Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi’s estranged sister, whom he tracks down at an underground fight club in Macao.
That club becomes the site of a rough family reunion, though not before a scene of nighttime acrobatic mayhem on some rickety outdoor scaffolding. The action sequences here are a cut above the norm for this franchise, which isn’t exactly saying much given how indifferently staged, drably lit and rather dull most Marvel action sequences tend to be. It’s gratifying if unsurprising that more care has been taken with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, given its roots in classic action cinema. The fight scenes draw on a myriad of influences, from the artful energy of Tsui Hark to the slapstick fisticuffs of Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow. Yet the movie comes nowhere close to those ambitions — the action is still too aesthetically anonymous, too CGI-polished. But it is nice when Leung’s Wenwu returns, rocking a mandarin-collared white suit and kicking this tale of an epically dysfunctional family into high gear. Leung sets the vengeful tone for a drama that’s Oedipal in its overtones and elliptical in its structure. Wenwu’s reemergence triggers several flashbacks to his wife’s untimely death and the grim fallout on their kids: We see young Shang-Chi being cruelly warped into a killing machine, while young Xialing is just as cruelly ignored. That doesn’t stop her from becoming a skilled, self-taught martial artist in her own right, intent on rebuking her father’s patriarchal disdain.
Which also brings to mind the movie’s own blind spots. Even with films like Captain Marvel and Black Widow, the Marvel movies tend to practice a form of feminism that’s both self-congratulatory and weirdly hesitant — a failure that feels all the more glaring for the filmmakers’ obvious attempts to address it. In drawing attention to Xialing’s personal history of neglect, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings insistently telegraphs its awareness of its own shortcomings. Short of squeezing her name into its already long title, the movie can only do so much to grant brother and sister the equal weight they deserve. Shang-Chi is the designated hero, but as inhabited by Liu, who’s better in motion than at rest, his emotional arc comes only fitfully into focus. It makes sense that he would feel guarded about his past, but Liu seldomly finds the necessary tension in that reserve. Shang-Chi has demons galore, having been abused, brainwashed and betrayed by his monomaniacal father, but those demons are more often articulated than fully expressed. This Shang-Chi seems to have inherited much of his father’s martial-arts prowess but not nearly enough of his charisma.
That’s not exactly a surprising flaw, simply because few actors here or anywhere can hold the screen against Leung. Reductive as the comparison may be, it’s hard to watch Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and not think back on the relatively superior Black Panther — not just because both movies represent a departure from the mostly white history of Hollywood superheroics, but also because they’re bound by a dramatic structure with its own built-in strengths and limitations. Here, as in that earlier movie, an appealing, somewhat recessive hero is surrounded by many whirling parts — parts that Cretton and his crew have smoothly and formulaically contained. That world must, of course, fit snugly inside a larger one, and from time to time you’re reminded that you’re watching not just a movie but an installment, a feature-length cog in the relentless Marvel machine; with a few players of the larger Marvel universe popping in. And while Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is most enjoyable when it shakes off the tedious franchise imperatives and forges its own path, overtime it shoves itself firmly into the world, delivering a climax that’s tailored to the usual Marvel specifications — apocalyptic stakes, bloodless casualties, sloppy VFX. It’s by then which the movie has sadly stepped away from its Leung factor and more into a scattered clutter. With a share of built-in strengths but also plenty of limitations, Shang-Chi throughout remains to be far too aesthetically anonymous; an increasingly bloated mess that loses its way.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently playing theaters nationwide