Saturday, September 4, 2021

Dragon On:

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a pretty good first hour. It’s bright and lively. It starts with a flashback about a devious semi-immortal kung-fu kingpin played by the never unappealing Tony Leung. (These superhero movies sure have a way of drawing in the biggest cinema royalty for paychecks and borrowed prestige.) The flashback plays out in some small amount of Zhang Yimou-inspired whooshing marital arts and flowering scenery. Then it hops a couple decades to the man’s grown son (Simu Liu), who fled his bad dad for a life as a normal bloke in San Francisco. He gets the expected call to action when attacked by some brutes on a bus and ends up proving he has moves like Jackie Chan. (He hangs out the window like a guy who’s seen Police Story’s impressive opening sequence.) This is, of course, a surprise to his best friend and comic relief (Awkwafina) who tags along on his journey back to his family where, surprise surprise, his pop is up to supernatural shenanigans that might bring about the end of the world. Director Destin Daniel Cretton, swerving away from the decent, intimate, indie-adjacent dramas he’s been making (like Short Term 12 and Just Mercy) into the bland and shiny machinery of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, nonetheless allows his performers a little bit of room to strut their stuff before the plot gears swallow them up entirely. An early highlight finds Shang-Chi fighting a kabuki-masked baddie up and down towering bamboo scaffolding, an enjoyable mix of place and space and personality juggling characters and variables. Eventually Michelle Yeoh shows up as Auntie Nan, who knows a thing or two about the deep magic of their family and how it might save us all. That’s never a bad choice, either.

But by then, that’s also where the movie's gone big and slow, trading a light touch for a sluggish trudge through exposition, backstory, flimsy family drama, thinning characterization, flat Marvel cameos, and a lengthy CG shooting gallery in which all the major players stare off at the phoniness with faux-profundity between quips. Gloopy beasties flop around and energy beams zip-zap and the apocalypse is trying to burst out of a hole in a cave (big improvement on the old hole-in-the-sky climax, eh?). It is, in other words, a Marvel movie. It has an appealing cast of movie legends, up-and-comers, and character actors trade bouncy banter and establish fun dynamics, ricochet through some clever early action sequences, and wear slick costumes. Then it lets all that dwindle down into routine resolutions involving energy beams and super-punches and swirling pixel clouds. The extent to which this one distinguishes itself is the genre skin it chooses to inhabit—reason for cinephiles to nod in recognition and critics to dutifully list off other, better filmmakers of which the movie reminds them in hopes the MCU fans choose to wander outside the franchise in a mind-expanding direction. (Here: in addition to Yimou and Chan, the fantasy epics of Tsui Hark, Wong-Kar Wai’s Leung-starring Grandmaster, and Ang Lee’s Yeoh collaboration Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) This is like those but worse and with Iron Man references. The extent to which any of these Marvel programmers works depends entirely on how much escape velocity of affection that first hour gathers before flattening out. For my money, this one is straight down the middle: better than some and worse than others. So it goes.

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