Should I be delighted or depressed that a replacement Marvel superhero joint will soon be introducing tons of individuals to at least one of the best actors and last true movie stars of his generation? Since “Shang-Chi and therefore the Legend of the Ten Rings” left me in a pretty good mood, I’ll accompany tentative delight. The actor in question is that the Hong Kong screen titan Tony Leung, who is not the movie’s lead — that might be Simu Liu as Shang-Chi — but is every inch its star. Leung is one among those performers who move through the frame with impossible grace and sometimes doesn’t move at all; if there are other actors who can express more by doing less, who can so magnetize the camera with a flicker of an eyebrow, they are not coming to mind.
Not that he has nothing to try to do here. Leung’s character, Xu Wenwu, may be a centuries-old Chinese warlord and therefore the bearer of these legendary 10 rings, Tolkienesque armbands that have made him immortal, invincible, and ever lustful for more power. He’s the newest incarnation of the Mandarin, conceived in 1964 by Stan Lee and Don Heck as a mustache-twirling Fu Manchu baddie, though his newer depictions have skewed far away from Asian stereotypes. Casting Leung amounts to a clever feat of reclamation: This Mandarin isn’t just a villain reborn but also a prismatic summation of the actor’s remarkable (and so far, Hollywood blockbuster-free) career.
When Wenwu takes over a shadowy criminal empire, you would possibly glimpse echoes of Leung’s most vital villain before this one, from Ang Lee’s wartime drama “Lust, Caution.” When he stumbles onto a secluded village and locks eyes with a talented warrior, Jiang Li (Fala Chen), their seductive hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart combat seems like a nod to Leung’s gorgeously abstracted martial-arts moves in Zhang Yimou’s “Hero.” And when Wenwu marries Li then loses her, his obsessive longing casts him in Leung’s most enduring cinematic image: the figure of eternally thwarted desire from Wong Kar-wai masterworks like “Happy Together,” “In the Mood for Love” and “2046.”
I may be overstating the cinephile’s case for this movie, especially since the reckless juxtaposition of words like “Marvel” and “cinema” has been known to start out an argument or two. Nevertheless, these allusions and associations desire the merchandise of some shrewd dramatic calculus by the director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12,” “Just Mercy”), who wrote the script with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. Leung’s presence gives the movie an extra-cinematic kick, a winking but resonant 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, with some success, to rise above Marvel business-as-usual.
Significantly remapping the origins of its magazine hero (who was created in 1973 by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin), the movie leaps ahead several years to catch up with Wenwu and Li’s grown son, Shang-Chi (Liu). Despite his extraordinary parentage, he’s living a reasonably ordinary life in San Francisco. Mom is dead and pop is nowhere to be seen. Shang-Chi works as a valet driver alongside his friend and fellow slacker, Katy (Awkwafina, in typically strong sidekick form), whose skills behind the wheel are available handy when a bunch of thugs ambushes them at some point on a bus. it is a shock to Katy and certain some within the audience when her goofy best bud (whom she’s always referred to as just “Shaun”) unleashes a stunning panoply of Kung Fu moves — abilities that were drilled into him by the daddy who abandoned him, but who now appears to be calling him home.
There are times (not enough, frankly) when “Shang-Chi and therefore the Legend of the Ten Rings” suggests a strangely demented comedy of cross-generational Asian conflict, during which the standard clashing sensibilities — East and West, traditional and modern — play out on a world-threatening supernatural stage. (The early nods to “The Joy Luck Club,” from the San Francisco setting to a quick cameo by the good Tsai Chin, are surely no accident.) during this interpretation, Wenwu looms because the big bad tiger 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 (where Ronny Chieng makes an amusing bookie) becomes the location of a most unhappy family reunion, though not before a scene of vertiginous nighttime acrobatics on some rickety outdoor scaffolding. The action sequences here are a cut above the norm for this franchise, and that i mean that as no huge compliment, given how indifferently staged, drably lighted, and wholly unexciting most Marvel action sequences tend to be. It’s gratifying if unsurprising that more care has been crazy “Shang-Chi and therefore the Legend of the Ten Rings,” given its roots in classic action cinema. The fight scenes, often backed by the percussion of Joel P. West’s versatile score, draw on myriad influences, from the artful kineticism of Tsui Hark to the slapstick fisticuffs of Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow. The movie might not live up to those ambitions — the action remains too aesthetically anonymous, too CG-polished — but it’s nice that it’s them to start with.
It’s nicer still when Leung’s Wenwu returns, rocking a mandarin-collared white suit (Kym Barrett’s costumes are a highlight) and kicking this tale of an epically dysfunctional family into high. Speaking during a higher-than-usual voice that rumbles with torment, rage, and pop gravitas, 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 therefore the grim fallout on their kids: We see young Shang-Chi being cruelly warped into a killing machine, while young Xialing is simply as cruelly ignored. that does not stop her from becoming a talented, self-taught martial artist in her title, bent rebuking — and eclipsing — her father’s patriarchal disdain.
The movie’s own blind spots aren’t as easy to beat. Despite the occasional “Captain Marvel” and “Black Widow” that come down the pike, the Marvel movies tend to practice a feminism that’s both self-congratulatory and weirdly hesitant — a failure that feels all the more glaring for the filmmakers’ obvious attempts to deal with it. In drawing attention to Xialing’s personal history of neglect, “Shang-Chi and therefore the Legend of the Ten Rings” insistently telegraphs its awareness of its own shortcomings. in need of squeezing her name into its already overextended title, the movie can only do such a lot to grant brother and sister the equal weight they deserve.
Xiang, frankly, could deserve the lion’s share. Shang-Chi is that the designated hero, but as inhabited by Liu, who’s better in motion than at rest — and at his best opposite Awkwafina, with whom he’s employed up a pointy, funny rapport — his emotional arc comes only fitfully into focus. It is sensible that he would feel guarded about his past, but Liu seldom finds the required tension therein reserve. Shang-Chi has demons galore, having been abused, brainwashed, and betrayed by the monomaniacal Wenwu, but those demons are more often articulated than fully expressed. This Shang-Chi seems to possess inherited much of his father’s martial-arts prowess but not nearly enough of his charisma.
That’s neither a fatal flaw nor a surprising one, and not simply because few actors here or anywhere can hold the screen against Leung. Reductive because the comparison could also be, it’s hard to observe “Shang-Chi and therefore the Legend of the Ten Rings” and not cut back on the superior “Black Panther” — not simply because both movies represent a departure from the mostly white history of Hollywood superheroes, but also because they’re bound by a dramatic structure with its own built-in strengths and limitations. Here, as therein earlier picture, an appealing, somewhat recessive hero is surrounded by many whirling, diverting parts — parts that Cretton and his crew (including the director of photography William Pope and therefore the editor’s Nat Sanders, Elisabet Ronaldsdottir, and Harry Yoon) have smoothly marshaled into a self-contained world.
That world must, of course, fit snugly inside a bigger one, and from time to time you’re reminded that you’re watching not just a movie but an installment, a feature-length cog within the relentless Marvel machine. Doctor Strange’s monkish sidekick Wong (Benedict Wong) shows up, as does another company player whose identity I’ll keep covert albeit the web hasn’t. Pockets of Sue Chan’s production design are strewn with references to the five-year “blip” from the last two “Avengers” movies.
But “Shang-Chi and therefore the Legend of the Ten Rings” is most enjoyable when it shakes off the tedious franchise imperatives and forges its own path. The movie’s late-breaking highlights include Michelle Yeoh’s performance as Ying Nan, a mentor figure to Shang-Chi and Xialing who dispenses pearls of wisdom with customary poise and offers a warm counterweight to Leung’s brooding chill. Ying Nan pops up in Ta Lo, a secluded Chinese village that occasions a number of the movie’s more striking visuals (including a dynamic joyride through a leafy labyrinth) and paves the thanks to the movie’s exciting mountainside climax.
Although tailored to the standard Marvel specifications — apocalyptic stakes, bloodless casualties — this endgame also features a distinctly personal undercurrent that seems to transcend the parameters of this particular story. Without divulging an excessive amount of, this is not the primary time a Leung character has stood before a mighty wall of stone, pondering depths of affection and loss that only he can see or hear — a fast but not-insignificant reference during a movie whose porous sense of cinema history is that the richest thing about it. “Shang-Chi and therefore the Legend of the Ten Rings” could also be far away from perfect, but it knows that sometimes it takes a god to play one.