Prior to seeing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a mainstream popcorn blockbuster-type comic book movie from a production company that has gotten quite a lot of mileage out of casting wonderful actors in roles that are much too small for them, I've been a bit snarky in talking about it like the only reason to be interested in it was as as Tony Leung vehicle. Having now actually seen the film, I'm honestly not sure that I was right to be snarky, after all: while it would be an awful stretch to say that Shang-Chi is a Tony Leung movie - if you told me that he gets 25 minutes of screentime in the 132-minute film, I'd be shocked - it is almost beyond question most interesting as a Tony Leung movie,  and perhaps even only interesting as a Tony Leung movie, as least as far as its story goes. Obviously there's also interest on the level of big-ass CGI spectacle and easily - easily - the best fight choreography in the entire history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which now reaches its 25th feature film. Not that you can always entirely parse that choreography, but we'll get there.

So, story-wise, this is exactly what you'd suppose: an introduction & origin story for Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), the Marvel comic book character who debuted in the 1970s as a response to the wildly popular B-movie genre of kung fu films imported from Hong Kong and Taiwan and China. In the film's telling - I know absolutely nothing about the comics figure - Shang-Chi is the son of Xu Wenwu (Leung), who came into possession, a thousand years ago or more, of ten magical rings that he can wear on his wrists. These rings do two things: make him immortal, and give him the ability to shoot beams just like Iron Man. Wenwu, over the centuries, created a global criminal empire, and had run out of realms to possess on this planet, so he started hunting for dimensional rifts to start conquering, when, in 1996, he met Ying Li (Fala Chen), a woman from the mystic village of Ta Lo. Falling in love with her, Wenwu renounced his ten rings and prepared to live as a mortal, having two children with Li; she was murdered by his enemies, and he went mad, training Shang-Chi as an assassin and devoting himself to vengeance. Flashforward to the 2020s, and Shang-Chi now lives in San Francisco under the name "Shaun", where he and his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) work at a valet parking company.

See, you can't even go through the set-up without making Wenwu seem more interesting than the character that the film is named for. And nothing in any of those 132 minutes is going to challenge that impression. Shaun/Shang-Chi is certainly in the running for the title of most boringly-written protagonist in the entire MCU, and he's not even the most boringly-written lead in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings: that honor comfortably goes to his sister, Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), who has become the operator of an underground fighting club in Macao after being abandoned by her father and brother. After spending all of an indulgently-paced motion picture with these two, I really couldn't tell you the first thing about them: their wants, their motivations, their basic personalities. Credited screenwriters Dave Callaham & Destin Daniel Cretton (Cretton also directs, competently but without distinction) and Andrew Lanham just plug those two into a thoroughly generic scenario, lard the thing up with heavy-handed but emotionally empty lines of dialogue about "living up to your potential" and "something to do with families, I dunno", and call that a day. Katy gets plugged into a similar clichéd slot, the sarcastic side-kick who is not all prepared to be dumped into a comic book world of global criminal organizations and, like, dragons and shit, but at least Awkwafina has a strongly-developed persona that she can use to transform the character - among the worst-written comic relief in the history of Marvel Studios - into a relatively successful and amusing figure through hammy mugging and funny voices. Relative newcomers Liu (who hasn't really acted in movies) and Zhang (who hasn't really acted in front of a camera, period) don't have any tricks they can fall back on like that, and so they end up completely empty presences, objects upon whom the story happens rather than active participants in its development.

So back we go: this is Leung's movie. Or, anyway, when Leung is onscreen, he's the only thing it's possible to care about, and when he's not onscreen, it's hard not to wonder what he's  up to. There are multiple reasons for this: Wenwu gets the film's most well-developed arc; he's the one with goals that he's pursuing and everybody else, especially Shang-Chi, are just reacting to him. The big reason, of course, is that Leung is one of the greatest movie stars in the history of the medium, one of those people that causes the camera to erupt in flames just by standing in front of it and looking vaguely troubled. He's a great actor, on top of it, but with a script like the one Shang-Chi has, that's practically incidental. All he needs is an infinite well of Screen Presence, and does he ever have it. He sells every single piece of Wenwu's trite backstory, turning the characters' ongoing delirious wish for vengeance even if it opens up the gate of whatever and unleashes the demons of somee damn thing into a heartbreakingly insular and inarticulate tragedy; his Wenwu is no megalomaniac but simply a man for whom grief and grief alone seems to keep his body from flying apart. I'm biased, but I wouldn't even hesitate before calling it the best performance in the history of the MCU.

So yeah, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has that going for it, and even if the blank space where its brand-new superhero ought to be is troubling (and suggests that Shang-Chi is going to be an extremely boring addition to the broader universe; certainly, one of the most strained and unexciting mid-credits scenes the franchise has ever crapped out makes it hard to look forward to seeing Liu interact with literally anybody other than Awkwafina, who is doing roughly 130% of the the work in selling their relationship), there's just enough holding it together that it doesn't feel like a catastrophe. The other thing it has going for it, sort of, is that this almost has great action sequences, in a franchise that has a uniquely frustrating problem with that. All of the typical Marvel problems are present and accounted for: the editing, which took three people to perpetrate (including one, Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, who I am usually very fond of), has no meaningful relationship to the beats of the story nor the rhythm of the action, and the cinematography by the reliable Bill Pope - going by "William" for unknown reasons - involves camera movement that is very weirdly fixated on moving us to the least-interesting angles on the fight choreography whenever possible. But Pope does make things brightly-colored and cheerfully-lit, with a nice sense of mythic, painterliness, and that's a real treat in the wake of the brownish-grey and greyish-brown palettes of most Marvel films.

But the thing is, the filmmakers have had the very good sense to steal from the right sources: '60s and '70s wuxia and kung-fu movies. And they generally steal from them with a great deal of care and attention. There are no few than three different setpieces that all have individual moments of the all-time best action in the MCU: the graceful wuxia sweep and balletic grace of Wenwu and Li's first fight/dance, the spirited chopsocky bravura of the crowded bus where Shaun first reveals his training, and an acrobatic fight along the sides of a Macao skyscraper. The latter two scenes are where the CGI becomes most obnoxious in the film, and all three suffer from editing and camerawork that don't know what to do with the choreography, but every few shots, things come together beautifully for some of the best '70s Hong Kong action that 2020s American filmmaking is likely to be able to cobble together.

Plus, the whole of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings benefits from the shift to fantasy from the science-fiction of most of its franchise-mates: while Wenwu and the ten rings are tediously redolent of Iron Man and all the other "fire blue laser beam" superheroes, everything else feels shockingly fresh for a franchise that hasn't done anything genuinely new in ages. There are, as I briefly mentioned, dragons. And that shift into slightly goofier and gaudier and less-grounded material is a deeply gratifying change - not enough to keep the climax from collapsing into the same "anonymous flying things versus CGI people" claptrap of so many comic book movies, but at least the trappings are a bit fluffier and more imaginative this time around.

Other MCU reviews (Phase 4)
Black Widow (Shortland, 2021)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Cretton, 2021)