“Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is more martial arts than Marvel, and that’s a good thing. Even the in-movie winks at the Marvel “stick the superhero landing” formula have grown stale. “Shang Chi” allows the universe to access all sorts of Chinese folklore, legend, history and myth — as well as martial arts movie tropes.
If only they’d done more of that.
It’s a film of dazzling effects, with the psychotronic bolts and shock-waves emanating from characters’ fingers taking a back seat to some truly Next Gen level water effects, bamboo forest maze scenes, and a pull-out all the stops Spider-Man-styled battle with bad guys in a moving, articulated (two-coach) bus up and down the streets of San Francisco. Stunning, and fun.
But that’s pretty much the high water mark for the Marvel moments in this two-hours-plus saga. The air goes out of the balloon, bit by bit, through a Macau fight club and high rise scaffolding chase, and the long middle acts settle into tedium, exposition and entropy.
“Kim’s Convenience” alumnus Simi Liu was tapped to play the title role, a young guy raised by his supervillain-who-settled-down Dad (Tony Leung of “In the Mood for Love”). His immortal Dad trained him to fight, but Shaun fled China for San Francisco. Now, he happily parks product-placement BMWs at a swank hotel with his joker BFF, Katy (Awkwafina).
But the past — detailed in enchanted opening scenes showing how Xu Wenwu (Leung) met, and fought the woman (Fala Chen) who became his wife and made him give up his never-ending search for power — catches up with Shaun. Hulking minions, including the magic-blade-armed Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) catch him on that bus.
Sure, his fight is live-streamed by a net-lump (Zach Cherry) helping Shaun go viral as “Bus Boy.” But the bottom line is, they stole his mother’s jade amulet.
He and Katy must dash off to China’s pre-Vegas Vegas — Macau — track down his sister (Meng’er Zhang) at her fight club and, after a throwdown in the ring, warn her that her amulet is on evil Dad’s mind.
“I don’t know what he wants with them, but we both know it can’t be good.”
The jokes, including a light sample of Awkwafina’s wide-eyed, profanity-punctuated gawking, are mostly low-hanging fruit, although the live-streaming bus fight is a hoot.
The dialogue, concocted by a “WW84” scribe, writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton and his “Just Mercy” screenwriter, is thin on jokes and weak on The Wisdom of the Far East.
“You are a product of all who came before you…A blood debt must be repaid by blood.”
The inclusion of a cute, headless, winged fantasy dog critter and retrieving Oscar winner Ben Kingsley from an earlier Marvel movie show that Cretton, who also did “Glass Castle” and “Short Term 12,” knew the tone to go for — light — and did his best to find it.
But the sitcom-vet leading man is seriously wooden, never showing us much in the way of range, never finding the character’s heart or funnybone.
Leung is an actor known for understated, sublimated performances. That doesn’t get the job done, playing Dad-the-Heavy here. He’s terrific at the fight choreography, but tentative in delivering his lines in English.
The over-exposed Awkwafina may have burned through any extra wit she could bring to the set to juice her character.
And Munteanu doesn’t have to do much as “Razor Fist,” but he never lets us forget his acting limitations as he does.
Bringing in Kingsley suggests the producers knew this wasn’t quite there in the script stage, and he adds a couple of grins. But nothing more.
Zhang and Chen make their female leads more interesting in performance than any of the menfolk. And that charisma gap is underscored when the effortlessly cool and commanding Michelle Yeoh shows up in the third act. Her presence and gravitas dominates her scenes and delivers a lot of what the leading men do not, even if that third act plays more like “The Chronicles of Narnia” than “House of Flying Daggers” — magical creatures galore.
Cretton wasn’t a natural choice to helm this, but when it works, you’re keenly aware he gets it. When it doesn’t, you wish he’d had the luxury of a script doctor before the cameras rolled.
And let me add that “Shang Chi” ends with not one but two post-credits Marvel “teasers,” and that they are the lamest in Marvel movie history.
All that said, it was smart of Disney/Marvel to try and further diversify/grow-the-brand by digging deep into Marvel’s archives for another culture to represent.
And maybe there’s a Chinese historical/political allegory in the thousand-year story of the immortal, ten-bracelet-empowered Xu Wenwu more aimed at Asian viewers that I only saw faint traces of. Here is a dictatorial villain who scores nationalist points for vanquishing Medieval Islamic and colonial British foes in a montage, a bad guy who softens with the love of a good woman, but who returns to his ruthless, power-mad ways after her death.
A poke at China’s long history and the sort of figures who ruled it, with or without popular support? Maybe.
Sadly, the impressive-looking but unemotional, only-sometimes-fun superhero movie they wrapped any “message” in plays like The Long March, a bit of a slog.
Rating: PG-13, for sequences of violence and action, and language (profanity)
Cast: Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Ben Kingsley and Michelle Yeoh
Credits: Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, script by Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham and Destin Daniel Cretton, based on the Marvel comics. A Disney/Marvel release.
Running time: 2:12