Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Xialing, Shang-Chi and Katy

Self-important, windy, drowning in lore, full of flat characters and just plain old dull, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is everything it shouldn’t be, a spectacular own goal from Marvel.

It looked like an open goal, too. Moving the Marvel Cinematic Universe to China is a great idea – a civilisation with millenia of history, superheroes aplenty and enough dragons and lion-headed creatures to stock a whole other pantheon of characters and an entire alternative bestiary. Plus, not to be forgotten, a massive population waiting to be sold stuff.

The film is based on Marvel’s 1973 creation Shang-Chi, who was originally the virtuous son of the villainous Fu Manchu (Marvel later back-pedalled on that when they lost the comic-book rights) and was modelled – shirt off, ripped physique – on Bruce Lee, the hottest thing in martial arts at that or any other time.

As part of the back-pedalling Fu Manchu became Xu Wenwu. Here he’s played by Tony Leung as a superhero from the mists of legend who has gained great power in his immortal trek through the ages, aided by his ten magical rings. In poorly told backstory – the first of many, many visits back to the past – we learn that the power-hungry Xu Wenwu had been transformed by the love of his life, who gave him two children, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), before she was captured and taken prisoner.

Driven back to the dark side, the father trains his son to be the greatest of warriors, the daughter also learning martial arts skills on the sly (sexism being part of the Xu Wenwu package), before the grown children fly the coop to hide from their increasingly insane father out in the world of mortals.

Giant breath. The film starts here – Shang-Chi, using the alias Shaun, being discovered in San Francisco and then heading back to China for an Oedipal showdown with dad, having picked his sister up en route, and with best pal Katy (Awkwafina) along for the ride as the human equivalent of one of those cutely comical Disney sidekick animals (never forget that this is a Disney movie).

But never mind all that, are the fights any good? They are, Marvel/Disney having borrowed the wire work and wuxia tricks familiar from films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Michelle Yeoh also borrowed, as Shang-Chi and Xialing’s aunt). While this film keeps moving, it keeps alive. It’s in between that is sags badly, as yet another bit of the past is re-introduced in airless dialogue delivered by actors whose faces telegraph discomfort.

Xu Wenwu with the ten rings
Have rings, will travel: Xu Wenwu

Characters are introduced only to be dropped again, when even the main characters – Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi, Xialing – are not adequately sketched. Ben Kingsley arrives at one point, playing an actorly actor called Trevor Slattery, Liverpool accent aiming at Scouse poet Roger McGough’s and getting most of the way there. Suddenly, things spark back to life as everyone involved remembers that this is a Marvel movie and Marvel movies are as much about sass and fun as about action. But Tony is soon forgotten, lost in the plot debris as yet more arcana is (sigh) unearthed and (bigger sigh) explained.

Barely any battle can be joined, or new character introduced, without a reverting back into the mists of time, where someone did something to somebody else and a thing of great import was set in train which blah blah blah…

I didn’t like it much. I’m not sure Disney did either. The CG was second rate, which at this point in the MCU game really is letting the side down. And Joel P West’s soundtrack seemed to have flicked one of the Rentascore generic settings and then sat back. At points it aped the orientalist ching-chang-pling-plong of the Charley Chan and, yes, Fu Manchu Hollywood films of yore.

There were dragons. I liked the dragons. I liked the brief appearance of Chen Fala as Shang-Chi’s mother – a graceful presence who looked like she was going to bring more to the martial arts table than the Marvel Power Stance. I liked the big finale, when things did eventually take off in “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” style

The great indie director Destin Daniel Cretton does not disgrace himself in his attempts at broad brush energy but does find himself outflanked by the marketing machinery of both Disney and Marvel. After Black Widow and before Eternals, this is the second of a planned 11-film run in Phase Four of the MCU. Will there be a Phase Five? Will Phase Four even make it to completion?

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Just Mercy

Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx

Just Mercy continues writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s zig-zag up the movie food chain. His breakthrough came in 2013’s Short Term 12, which not only made his own name but also that of Brie Larson, who is now playing Captain Marvel at god knows what hourly rate of pay. Trouper that she is, she turns out for Cretton again here, as she did in his last film, 2017’s The Glass Castle, though here she’s in a minor, supporting role to star Michael B Jordan.

Just Mercy tells a true story, of a smalltime lumber guy, Walter McMillian, known locally as Johnny D, who was picked up by the cops for the murder of a blond white woman in 1987. In spite of the fact that there was no evidence against him, that he had a cast-iron alibi with any number of witnesses that he wasn’t even in the town where it happened, Johnny found himself on death row in Alabama, from where not a single person had ever been released, except through the tender mercies of the electric chair.

Johnny’s actual crime, it’s suggested, was having fooled around with a white woman at some point, and what with Johnny being a black man in Alabama and all…

Enter Michael B Jordan as real-life superhero Bryan Stevenson (the film is based on his book), a young, idealistic Harvard graduate lawyer who has decided not to follow the money and is instead representing cases on Alabama’s death row. Having first worked out that none of the men he’s represented has had decent legal representation – defence lawyers who didn’t defend, didn’t mention vital facts in the case and so on – he takes on Johnny’s case, after some stiff-legged getting-to-know-yous.

Rafe Spall as the local DA

Off they go, this doughty pair, through all the hoops that the definitely-not-racist townspeople – how can they be, when they have a Mockingbird Museum in this town where Harper Lee grew up? – can put in their way, past the resistant local sheriff, the flinty local DA and into court and then up through the legal system to the State Supreme Court.

It’s an angry film but a familiar one, so full of stock characters you half expect Rod Steiger to appear any minute. And that’s the film’s big problem.

There are some scenes of genuine shock, like when Stevenson visits Johnny for the first time and is strip-searched on entry by the white prison guards, just so he understands who has the whip hand here. But too often it treads a familiar path.

In real life, of course, it’s this routine different treatment that is outrageous. Out and out racism, the gaming of the system, the loading of the dice, at every stage, in every way, against one colour of person by another, in ways legal and illegal, indict a system professing to offer equality of justice to all. But at the level of drama, we have just seen all this too often before.

In spite of the presence of Foxx, who is always good, it’s Jordan’s film, though Cretton hovers uncertainly over the character of Johnny D, unsure how much story time to give him. Johnny’s will he/won’t he with the electric chair never really carries any… er… spark.

On the way to the final dénouement we do see one man go to the chair, Rob Morgan as the benighted PTSD-suffering Herb being just one of many examples of a great cast (Larson, Rafe Spall, Michael Harding, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Tim Blake Nelson, CJ LeBlanc) just not having enough to do.

It ends on a shocking final statistic. That for every nine people who die on death row, one has been found innocent. We hear it. We just don’t feel it like we should.

Just Mercy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021