All the way back to those rough and tumble barfights in the 1940s serial versions of Batman and Captain America, fight scenes have been key to comic book superhero movies – though since the POW! BAM! CRUNCH! Adam West Batman show, there’s been a certain self-consciousness about it. There’s also a divide between superheroes with martial arts skills – Batman, Daredevil, Green Arrow – and those with zapping/magic/flying powers, even if the barrier between the categories is permeable, as demoed by Iron Fist’s glowing punch or even Spider-Man’s arachnid abilities. It’s also the case that this side of the genre has been oddly undercooked in modern superhero movies, which never quite match the superpower fights of, say, Tsui Hark’s Butterfly Murders and often seem rather dour exercises in thumping in the dark or hopping about with excess pixellage. So, it’s refreshing that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel’s stab at a kung fu movie the way Guardians of the Galaxy was their space opera, has decent choreography (courtesy the late Brad Allan) and in its first half delivers a succession of imaginative bouts between well-delineated characters who don’t vanish into the stuntwork or CGI. Oddly, the second half transforms into a big fantasy action movie (dragons!) that feels closer to The Neverending Story or The Mummy Curse of the Dragon Emperor than, say, Fist of Fury or Enter the Dragon.
It’s an attempt to wrestle some of Marvel’s most ungainly IP into a global-appeal MCU effort on the usual template (hero with daddy issues – again!) while turning cartwheels to avoid reminding you this is a company whose knockoff Fu Manchu was once called the Yellow Claw. Shang-Chi Master of King Fu came about because Marvel lumped all pop culture Asiatica together and decided to make their Bruce Lee-type hero the son of the original Fu Manchu, whose rights they happened to have at the time … but don’t have now. Meanwhile, they had several other Fu Manchu stand-ins, often tinged with Cold War anti-communist attitudes, and now one of those is comprehensively worked over to fill in for Sax Rohmer’s ‘yellow peril incarnate’. The MCU version of Mandarin, Iron Man’s antagonist, was revealed in Iron Man Three to be a Great and Powerful Oz fraud played by a Luverpudlian actor (Ben Kingsley). Here, the almost-rhymes-with-he-who-cannot-be-named Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) wields bracelets equivalent to the ten rings the Mandarin stole from an alien spaceship in the comics. He admits that the Kingsley Mandarin was supposed to be a caricature of him. Leung has charisma to burn and Xu is closer to the honourable, immortal, not-completely-a-villain Fu Manchu of Rohmer’s later novels than any previous screen incarnation … but the script blands out his villainy, so he’s yet another misguided, grief-stricken obsessive rather than a full-on diabolical mastermind (the MCU remains reluctant to give us real baddies – they really need to get Dr Doom onscreen soon).
The film gets by thanks to Simi Liu as Shaun/Shang-Chi, impressive in fighting off faceless bad guys but charming when doing drunk karaoke with civilian sidekick Katy (Awkwafina). I was glad to see Michelle Yeoh as the hero’s fighting auntie and Tsai Chin as a comedy relation. Technically, Chin is the last surviving screen daughter of Fu Manchu – I wish they’d had the nerve to fit in a post-credits scene revealing that she’s playing the much older sister of Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who is this film’s take on the Daughter of the Dragon character. Director Destin Daniel Cretton is the latest recruit from midlist no-ripple pix (Just Mercy) to these big budget products and presumably works on making the between-fights chat solid enough, then takes a backseat as the Marvel stuff takes over. A problem is that this is yet another origin burdened with a thousand years of backstory doled out piecemeal. The flow is always being interrupted by flashbacks to yet more of the hero’s tangled history and, in the second half, a sculptural frieze has to explain the fantasy stuff which pits versions of a couple of Marvel kaiju (Fin Fang Foom and the Dweller in Darkness) against each other. As a funny cameo by Benedict Wong suggests, isn’t this sort of thing a case for Doctor Strange? Somehow, seeing Shang-Chi punch a dragon doesn’t read as well onscreen as his fight with a bunch of assassins on a careening San Francisco bus in the first act.
Oh, and it’s nice to see the Abomination (Tim Roth) with the proper ears.