There is an instant thrill in having a supersized Marvel superhero movie begin with a voiceover in Mandarin as Tony Leung comes into the frame. One of the world's great actors, Leung exerts an effortless majesty. In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, he plays Wenwu – an immortal who possesses 10 rings with enormous occult power. Wenwu, also known as The Mandarin, heads a criminal organisation called The Ten Rings, which was introduced in the first Iron Man movie. He is a man tormented by an insatiable lust for power, which somehow gets submerged under his love for his wife but then resurfaces after her death as something even more twisted and vicious. Wenwu is one of the more tragic villains in the MCU and Leung plays him with a melancholic charisma that doesn't let up even in the climax as several CGI creatures twist and snarl and prey on everything in their path. He is one of the many pleasures of this film.
The other is Awkwafina, who provides the film's comedy quotient as Shang-Chi's best friend Katy. Katy is the smart, goofy, non-judgmental, open-to-any-adventure buddy that dreams are made of. Awkwafina gives her a boisterous energy and practicality that offsets the heavy-duty family tragedy. In a hilarious scene, she ribs Shang-Chi for barely bothering to change his name when he runs away from his father and goes into hiding. He becomes Shaun. Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing are Wenwu's estranged, damaged children. Shang-Chi is living the slacker life in San Francisco, where he works as a valet alongside Katy. Xialing is running an underground fight club in Macau. He left home at 14 and she at 16. But now daddy wants them back.
Early in the film, director Destin Daniel Cretton and fight coordinator Andy Cheng construct a showstopper action sequence on a bus. It plays like a mash-up of Speed with a sanitised version of the subway fight scene in The Raid 2. A man with a machete for an arm literally cuts the bus in half while Katy drives and Shang-Chi breaks out the fight moves he learned as a child when his father was training him to be a world-class assassin. It's exhilarating and funny and so packed with adrenalin that everything that follows comes off as slightly tame.
The film showcases various types of martial arts and some of the action borders on lyrical. An early sequence in which Wenwu fights – hand-to-hand – and falls in love with Jiang Li, who is the only warrior to defeat him, feels like foreplay. It reminded me of that sensuous sword fight in Jodhaa Akbar and the synchronised archery of Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. There's also a terrific bit of combat on the scaffolding of a high-rise building. The film sets up Xialing as a fearsome fighter, just like her brother. She is also as much a victim. But ultimately, this remains his story and she, despite her prowess, remains a supporting player. The sublime Michelle Yeoh plays Xialing's aunt, who is also a skilled fighter.
This family drama keeps Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings afloat. Cretton, who co-wrote the script with David Callaham and Andrew Lanham, wisely keeps it at the forefront. As with every MCU movie, the fate of the world hangs in the balance but the spectacle is grounded in emotional stakes. This is the ultimate dysfunctional family brimming with rage, abuse, resentment and abandonment. Wenwu can't escape his past. Nor can he conquer his grief. There is no healing for him or his children.
At over two hours, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stretches its limits. The film is too long and there are passages that lumber rather than sprint. Especially the interminable last battle in which CGI overwhelms everything else. This is the 25th film in the MCU and it's getting harder to be dazzled by these endgame scenarios. Eventually, all the creatures blur into a fog of pixels.
But mostly, Cretton manages to deftly juggle the film's multiple responsibilities. Shang-Chi is the MCU's first Asian lead and like Black Panther, this film carries the weight of the departure from the all-white pantheon of Marvel superheroes. The writing doesn't have the heft or depth of that film. And while Simu Liu as Shang-Chi is likeable and effective, especially in the fight scenes, he can't yet command the frame or summon the complex emotions that Leung does with such ease.
Still, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a strong step forward. Marvel fans looking for easter eggs won't be disappointed – a few beloved MCU characters make an appearance and there are hints of what will come. I'm most excited at the possibility that somewhere down the line, in Phase 4 of the MCU, Katy and Dr. Strange might join hands. That would be something.
You can watch Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings at a theater near you. Please don't forget to wear a mask.