Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021, Destin Daniel Cretton)

The third act of Shang-Chi makes it real obvious what’s been wrong with the movie the whole time–it doesn’t matter if Simu Liu is onscreen. The third act has a bunch of different characters fighting a bunch of different bad guys, and Liu disappears for a few minutes to do the whole “how’s the hero going to get inspired from the edge of death” bit and… the movie doesn’t need him. Because even though Liu’s Shang-Chi, the star, he’s never the interesting character in a scene.

The film starts with Tony Leung Chiu-wai (who apparently spoke English this whole time, which is devastating because he finally “comes” to America, and it’s this movie). He’s a near-immortal warlord who wants to capture a mythic village so he can see dragons or something. It’s an Alexander wept moment, don’t ask questions. Leung gives a captivating performance in an absolutely crap part. He went nine hundred and seventy-five years without ever doing any character development, and now he’s rushing to get some in.

Anyway. Still the opening. Leung meets Fala Chen in the village, and they have a wuxia fight. Or at least as close as Shang-Chi gets to a wuxia fight. Director Cretton at least tries with this fight. None of the other fight scenes in Shang-Chi have any real… what’s the word. Effort. The other fights don’t have a style goal. Or at least they don’t have a visible style goal. If Cretton was actually going for something, it’d be worse because he, cinematographer Bill Pope, and the three editors (Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, Nat Sanders, and Harry Yoon) never achieve it. Or even make it clear they’ve got actual ambitions other than getting to the next scene.

Leung and Chen fall in love, and throughout the film—via flashbacks—we learn he gave up a life of international crime bossing for her, settled down, had a couple kids who grow up to be Liu and Meng’er Zhang. Chen dies under mysterious circumstances, but only to the audience; it’s just the flashback doesn’t want to tell us yet. Because Dave Callaham and Cretton’s script is tediously manipulative. There aren’t any surprises in Shang-Chi, which just makes it all the more amazing it’s able to get to so many compelling moments thanks to the cast and, I don’t know, a competent production’s momentum. And it’s a low competent. Like, Disney did not pony up for real effects money on Shang-Chi. The composites are so bad it’s almost a Warner Bros. superhero movie. Almost.

In the present, Liu’s a San Francisco valet parker who spends all his time hanging out with best friend, Awkwafina. They’re just friends. It’s never explained why they’re just friends, possibly because Liu, Awkwafina, and Zhang are weirdly asexual, but they basically lead this amusing sitcom life. Just with fast cars. What’s weird about the Liu and Awkwafina stuff is the actors can obviously do comedy—Awkwafina from this movie and, you know, Liu from “Kim’s”—but Cretton doesn’t know how to do it. Or more, he doesn’t try to do it. It’s the aforementioned lack of effort kicking in again. Instead of it actually being funny, it’s a too-brief nod at funny.

Really quickly, Liu has to fight some bad guys on a bus, which ends up forecasting Cretton’s inability to do action sequences, and then he and Awkwafina are off to Macau to meet up with previously unrevealed sister Zhang.

They then meet up with dad Leung, who reveals he’s going to go get all the dinosaurs from Isla Sorna. Sorry, wait, I’m thinking Lost World: Jurassic Park but Cretton cribs a scene from there, so I got confused. Leung wants to invade the village and rescue the soul of dead wife Chen from the shitty villagers who wouldn’t let them live there because he’s a warlord.

Even though Awkwafina’s already the comic relief, they need more, so Ben Kingsley comes back from Iron Man 3 (more specifically, the superior Marvel short, All Hail the King), and occasional smiles occur during the subsequent action. Up until they get to the secret village, where Michelle Yeoh enters the movie, and all of a sudden, it’s interesting. Because even though Leung’s mesmerizing, it’s a lousy part. Yeoh’s part isn’t good, but it’s not a terribly underwritten villain part. She’s the cool aunt. She’s basically the hero of the last third of the runtime.

Eventually, Liu will be critical in saving the world from dragons or whatever, but he doesn’t have to act while doing it. Most of the time, he’s just a part-CGI model in extreme long shot.

There’s no one who doesn’t take over the scenes with Liu. Awkwafina from go, then Zhang, then Leung, then Yeoh, but also the supporting actors in scenes, like bit player Ronny Chieng. There’s an astounding lack of direction from Cretton when it comes to his actors. All of them muscle through—I mean, relatively, like Zhang’s likable but not particularly good and Awkwafina is one-note—just not Liu. He’s so unimportant in his own movie it can lose him, and it doesn’t matter, which makes the hero’s quest finale all the more lackluster.

Shang-Chi’s never bad—it’s incredibly safe—but it feels like it’s never bad because Cretton and company figured out a way to produce the film without any stakes. Certainly not for Cretton. Or Liu.

For a specific viewer, Leung will more than make it worth it. Even when he becomes CGI. Or more, he doesn’t become CGI for long enough for it to hurt him. Ditto Yeoh, actually, whose big action sequence ends up being as a too-small CGI model. Then there’s Kingsley; his return is fun but underwritten because Cretton and Callaham are dreadful at comedy.

Also, since the flashbacks to Chen’s story go on for so long—it’s third act before we get the whole story and the movie completely, and very intentionally wimps out on the implications—even though Chen’s okay, she just reminds if they’d gotten Maggie Cheung for the part… I mean, then you’d have a movie worth Tony Leung Chiu-wai. But no. Because it’s a rote and joyless outing, albeit an aridly competent one.

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