*Warning: This article contains spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings*
Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, and it’s no coincidence. The 59-year old actor, best known for starring in Wong Kar-wai productions, such as 2046, Chungking Express, and In The Mood for Love, finally makes his Hollywood debut as Xu Wenwu, founder of The Ten Rings: a thousand-year-old organization known for destroying kingdoms and toppling governments. The rings have allowed him to become immortal, as his quest for power and total control spawned centuries. In 1996, Wenwu learned of the village of Ta Lo, a mystical place that harbors otherworldly animals, such as dragons, further to increase his control over the Ten Rings’ activities, but falls in love with Jiang Li (Fala Chen), who is guarding the village. This sequence is where we get our first glimpse at Shang-Chi’s action style, which acts as one of the most visually literate tributes to the greatest martial arts films of the past. The bamboo forest immediately recalls King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, with the movements of Leung and Chen through its labyrinthic space sharing the same dream-like imagination as in Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers, with Joel P. West’s magnificent score sealing the entire deal together, already creating one of the best cinematic experiences of the year.
Leung’s magnifying presence, right from the get-go, only exacerbates the fact that he’s one of the greatest actors working today. His intense smolder adds so much depth to his character; it’s unbelievable to see him do so much with very little. In fact, he’s one of the few (with James Gandolfini, if we’re clear) who can convey a wide array of emotions through one look. Take, for example, the way he looks at Jiang Li for the first time; completely overwhelmed by her beauty and grace, even though he has just met her. But Wenwu is so entranced by her presence, so compelled by seeing her fly through the entrance of Ta Lo, as he fights her with the rings, that he is willing to give up his quest to enter the city to start a family and raise children. From the way he observes Jiang for the first time to the birth of Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), this entire arc is only expressed through one subtle facial expression and changes the entire course of the character. When Wenwu exacts revenge on the Iron Gang after they murdered Jiang, the flames of vengeance and hatred come roaring back, as he believes that “A blood debt has to be paid by blood.” And the way he looks at his enemies before fighting them is the stuff of legend–something that even the most versatile actors of our time can never achieve. Most actors who perfected a certain look, like Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, and Gandolfini, are no longer with us. Leung is the last remaining who perfectly achieves this kind of acting, one that film critic Bela Balazs refers to as “microphysionomy,” where one facial expression reveals what’s found underneath the character’s physical façade.
To have such a complex and highly talented actor in an MCU production only heightens the quality of the film, and almost everything else in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is as exciting as seeing Leung on the big screen. In the past, I’ve been very critical of the MCU’s lack of a true visual style for their action sequences. Most of them adopt the same aesthetic style, even if a different filmmaker helms the entry, which particularly falters their third act, which usually comprises a hodgepodge of bad (and murky) CGI. And while Shang-Chi definitely doesn’t escape a wonky CGI-filled third act, it more than makes up for it during its initial fight sequences. If the first fight scene was a tribute to the artistry of King Hu and Zhang Yimou, the second fight scene, set in a bus, pays tribute to the work of Jackie Chan, as Shang-Chi uses the elements around him as weapons, such as his jacket (which he constantly plays with as he fights Florian Munteanu’s Razor Fist and his team of henchmen). As the MCU continues to grow, it’s becoming hard to discern which action sequences are the “best” of the franchise, in part due to the franchise’s rather homogenous style, but I think it’s safe to say that Shang-Chi‘s action sequences are its most dynamic yet; wonderfully shot by Bill Pope, who takes his expertise directing martial arts action in The Matrix trilogy to great effect here, and crafts one visually charged setpiece after another. As the tensions between Wenwu and Shang-Chi heightens, the action choreography becomes more sophisticated and the camerawork more elaborate, culminating in the single greatest 1-on-1 fight scene of the entire MCU. You may think I’m exaggerating (I get that a lot), but most 1v1 fight sequences in the franchise are plagued with shaky cam and/or jump cuts. I look at the scene where Captain America fights 2012 Cap in Avengers: Endgame, and while the sequence is quite funny, the action choreography is all over the place; using random jump-cuts to hide the fact that two Chris Evans aren’t fighting each other and stunt doubles are permeating the entire scene. Cretton and Pope never hide movement through jump-cuts, even if the CGI is wonky at times, but constantly focuses their IMAX camera on the characters. They dictate the movements, not the camera and its editing. In fact, the editing is so subtle you barely notice it, as your eyes are continuously focused on Simu Liu and/or the other actors on the frame.
You’d be naive to think Liu will match the same acting quality as Leung or Michelle Yeoh, but he’s able to hold his own with such legends of the craft. And his charisma humanizes the character of Shang-Chi, who wants to stay away as far as possible from the life his father has, but can’t help but be in his shadow. He shares terrific chemistry with Awkwafina’s Katy, who brings much-needed comedic levity to the film’s high stakes, but it’s Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery who has the film’s funniest lines. Iron Man 3 promised a fresh spin on The Mandarin, and having Ben Kingsley play him felt like the greatest villain casting of all time…until it was revealed that he’s actually an actor and has been putting on a show to cover up Aldrich Killian’s Extremis accident. Many fans were pissed off at such a missed opportunity and making a highly talented actor like Kingsley a walking punchline, but I ate up every second of it. I mean…what did you expect from a Shane Black film after all? Kingsley continues in the same absurdist antics that made the twist so great and made me laugh as harder as I ever thought possible. Some of the film’s jokes don’t land as the writers would hope and do break the flow of the story at times, but Kingsley’s comedic skills are unparalleled, and his supporting role is a much-welcomed addition to the mix. But the film’s funniest scene involves Wong–and it’s something you’ll have to see for yourself. Wong’s deadpan attitude brought much humor to the first Doctor Strange film, but this is the wildest he’s ever been…I’ll leave it at that.
It’s also great to see an MCU climax that doesn’t rely on expansive characters from the universe to help out the hero. Even if we do get lost in the clutter of CGI creatures (that look the same, as their gray design doesn’t help to differentiate the two), Shang-Chi will have to rely on his own skills to defeat Wenwu and stop him from awakening The Dweller-in-Darkness, which has the power to destroy the entire world. Grief-stricken by the death of his wife, Wenwu believes he hears the voice of Jiang calling for her rescue, but he is corrupted by the Ten Rings’ power that he can’t discern what constitutes as real or fiction anymore. It’s a rather tragic antagonist story, but Wenwu is one of the most layered MCU villains we’ve had so far and the best antagonist of any MCU title that came out this year. I’ve already talked about Leung’s performance long enough, but his character is equally as interesting. He’s neither a hero nor a complete villain: he operates in the moral line of good and bad. His quest for power makes him a menacing figure, but his relationship with Jiang brought back his humanity. After her death, Wenwu is torn between staying a human and taking care of Shang-Chi and Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) or exact vengeance and become the most powerful being in the entire universe. Shang doesn’t even want to fight Wenwu at the end and gives up killing him, as it would be too easy. But the Dweller, unfortunately, sucks Wenwu’s immortal soul, and his tragic story comes to an end. Cretton never paints The Mandarin as a terrorist or a serial despot hellbent on dominating the world, but as a human who quickly becomes warped by the mythic power of the Ten Rings and eventually loses his own sense of self. When the only person that kept his humanity in check perishes, Wenwu reverts to his old ways and becomes more corrupted than he did before. His character is immensely intricate and portrayed with such finesse by one of the greatest actors of our time.
I’ll admit I didn’t really care for Shang-Chi‘s ties to the larger MCU. The apparitions of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, who is magically back as a human now, after his stint as Professor Hulk in Endgame, without any explanation) felt more tacked on than being a proper set-up of the hero’s next involvement in the series. But I was also left utterly breathless by the film’s intricately choreographed action sequences and taken aback by a legendary villain performance from Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. The movie’s flawed moments quickly dissipated and turned into minor ones nitpicks. Yes, Marvel doesn’t reinvent the wheel during its CGI-filled third act; yes, some of the jokes don’t land as others. Yes, references to the wider MCU aren’t as well-developed as, say, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier‘s or Black Widow‘s. Still, Cretton doesn’t really care about expanding the universe and prefers to create the very best fight scenes of the entire MCU instead. And the result culminates in the best film I’ve seen in a theater all year–and one that makes me hopeful for the future of moviegoing again. Shang-Chi is poised to break Labor Day box-office records in the midst of a global pandemic. Labor Day is usually a cursed week for films, but Marvel may break it during the most uncertain times imaginable. And in these crazy and uncertain times, we need escapism more than ever. Shang-Chi provides a great dose of catharsis and escapism for all of us to rejoice over and immerse ourselves into a new and exciting world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And if you’re a fan of Tony Leung, you need to see this immediately. The world needs more of him—end of the story.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now playing in theatres.