When the Marvel Cinematic Universe uses its tremendous power to run a manufacturing line, it’s telling. It’s just as telling when one of their projects has a truly personal spark to it, allowing franchise values like amazing spectacle, spectacular performances, and intricate family portraits to triumph. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is the latest entry in this category, following in the footsteps of earlier Marvel films that offered a vision and became standards: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Black Panther,” and “Thor: Ragnarok.” This film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, fits into the Marvel universe in its own way, but it has a soulfulness that other MCU films, superhero films, and action films in general can learn from.
Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu, is a critical piece of a fractured family with a history of infighting. The ten rings that confer such great power to Shang Chi’s power-hungry father Wenwu, who has lived for 1,000 years and founded a society known as the Ten Rings that has destroyed kingdoms and manipulated events all across the world, are even more essential than the dysfunctional family relations. There was serenity when Wenwu fell in love with Jiang Li (Fala Chen). They tied the knot and began a family. However, once Shang-mother Chi’s died, a newly hideous Wenwu attempted to mature his son by turning him into a murderer, prompting the young boy to abandon his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and Wenwu. Cretton, who directed “Short Term 12,” an Avengers-style exhibition of indie emerging talent (Brie Larson, LaKeith Stanfield, Rami Malek, and others), preserves the visceral, human stakes in this script (by himself, Dave Callaham, and Andrew Lanham), such that the superhero background is a bonus to the drama. The picture is a lavish dance that glides and hovers over a chasm of sadness.
When Shang-Chi, now an adult in America, rides the bus with his companion Katy (Awkwafina) up and down the hills of San Francisco, this narrative emerges. A gang of thugs attacks Shang-Chi for a green pendant he wears around his neck, and Shaun’s incredible bravery is revealed in a beat that’s prefaced like a power-up (much to Katy’s amusement). So do his fighting talents, which contribute to an astonishing melee scene of hand-to-hand combat in which the camera roams freely in and out of the rolling bus, much like its impromptu hero. The sequence lacks yowch-factor (especially when contrasted to how “Nobody” executed the same thing with appropriate blood earlier this year), but it compensates by being fast-paced, even longer than you expect, and extremely humorous. It’s the birth of an action star in Liu, and an incredible debut for a character who will be thrust into escalating battle scenes in this film.
However, the strength of this picture comes through from the vision of his father, Wenwu. One of the film’s most creative moves is casting Tony Leung in order for him to recreate the same magic he’s had in countless Hong Kong romances and dramas. This film belongs to Leung. Leung destroys armies, raises a family, and struggles to resist dangerous grief with the same silent passion and stillness that made “In the Mood for Love” one of the greatest romances of all time; his presence is made all the more powerful by the ten blue rings that help him catapult around and destroy whatever is in his path. When he hears what could be his wife’s voice from behind a rock, Wenwu transforms into a Darth Vader-like tyrant, leading a rampage through the mother’s magical home, Ta Lo, in order to reach a cave that everyone else (including his son and daughter) knows contains an apocalyptic, soul-sucking dragon. Because the fury and anguish it portrays are suitably Leung-sized, it’s the greatest performance from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
That doesn’t seem like a mistake that a major Hollywood movie tentpole built on character-based kung fu has spawned such elaborate battle scenes, and it just adds to the film’s freshness. When it arrives to orchestrating a fight set-piece that surprises the viewers (like a jaw-dropping, way-up-high especially at night battle royale on some scaffolding in Macao), Cretton and his team frequently play with height, light, reflections, and staging), and then foregrounds the choreography as the main spectacle; it’s not just about who is throwing the punches and kicks. Several beats in these sharply edited sequences blasted me out of my chair, an unintentional filmmaking nerd response I’ve had to similar films that inspired this one: “Skyfall,” “The Grandmaster,” to name a few.