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









Sunshine

Cillian Murphy in Sunshine

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

15 February

 

 

Galileo Galilei born, 1564

On this day in 1564, the astronomer, mathematician and physicist Galileo Galilei was born. He was most famous for advocating the Copernican view of the solar system, which put the sun at the centre and had the planets orbiting about. This was in stark contradiction of the Church view, which had the earth at the centre, and also the Tychonic system (earth at centre, sun orbiting earth, other planets orbiting the sun). Galileo was an accomplished lutenist, like his father, and also considered the priesthood before choosing the life scientific. He had studied medicine before switching to mathematics and natural philosophy, before going on the become an instructor in drawing and perspective. Before the age of 30 he was a professor of mathematics in Pisa, then moved to Padua where he also taught astronomy. From around 1616 until he was ordered to Rome to stand trial in 1633, Galileo’s views on heliocentrism had been bringing him increasingly into conflict with the Church. Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, threatened with torture and finally found guilty of heresy. He was forced to recant his beliefs, sentenced to house arrest and his books were banned. He lived another nine years. In 1992, after an investigation into the workings of the Inquisition, the Church agreed that Galileo was right.

 

 

 

Sunshine (2007, dir: Danny Boyle)

Visually driven films often seem to fall by the wayside – where’s the plot, man? – and so it is with one of Danny Boyle’s more interesting films, a sci-fi adventure about a mission to reboot the sun, which according to Sunshine has started dying about five billion years ahead of time. It’s true that there isn’t much plot, but this is a film that’s all about texture. It’s also all about classic high modernist sci-fi, the entire thing being a homage to the Kubrick world that Alien destroyed and Sunshine tries to give us back – of people on the cusp of thrilling new knowledge, living in an aseptic environment of filtered air, white space suits, the full brave new world shtick. Boyle references Alien, just to let us know he’s seen it, and there’s also touches familiar from Blade Runner, Dark Star and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. But it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that’s highest in the mix. Which does tend to push human beings towards the background a bit, and for much of the time Cillian Murphy, Rose Bynre, Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Michelle Yeoh and the rest of the internationally assorted crew of the Icarus II seem to be functioning like actual astronauts rather than characters in an action movie, which is what the genre has led us to expect. And then we get the turning point – a message from the supposedly disappeared Icarus I, which has been loitering around the backside of Mercury (or something). What to do? Go get them, or continue with the mission? Continue with the mission is the obvious answer, and Boyle and writer Alex Garland’s film spends a lot of time effectively analysing Hollywood’s tendency to abandon high ideals at moments like this and save the thing with the cutest eyes. Principles, thought, intelligence. But never mind all that, Sunshine is at its purest when it concentrates on the orb itself – Boyle had surely seen Olafur Eliassson’s huge sun in the art installation The Weather Project at Tate Modern in London, UK (late 2003-early 2004) – with Alwin Küchle’s camera giving us shot after awe-inspiring shot of the monstrously huge disc flooding the spaceship with bleach-strong light. They’re on a suicide mission, these guys, though the closer they get to the sun, the more inclined everything in the film is to say, “yes, but what a way to go.”

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The 28 Days Later team of Boyle and Garland back together
  • Cinematography by Code 46 and Hanna’s Alwin Küchler
  • An old-school modernist sci-fi
  • Hot topic, cool treatment

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Sunshine – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

 

 

 

He (Chow Yun-Fat) loves her (Michelle Yeoh); she loves him, but they cannot be together until the fabled jade sword has been returned to its rightful owner. This they seek to do, hindered by an assassin and a mystery figure whose martial arts abilities rival their own.

All that plot business is entirely secondary to the working of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon though. It has just enough connective tissue to lead from one breathtaking display of martial arts magic to the next. It was the film of 2000, taking the most autistically male of movie genres, the martial arts epic, and broadening its appeal by adding a balletic twist. By a similar sleight of hand director Ang Lee also took the chickest of chick-flick romances and added a thriller chase. Both elements of a date-movie night out now satisfied, Lee then complicated things still further by filming most of the martial arts fights in near darkness, whereas the more usually moody love stuff was shot in blistering sunshine – out in the desert in fact. Which is where the porcelain beauty of Zhang Ziyi comes to the fore, in scenes with outlaw lover Chang Chen. If you have not seen it, then you have truly missed out – but there will be plenty of people who will envy the fact that you are still yet to witness the occasion when our combatants in love and life first leave the ground and run up the walls onto the roof, where one of the most beautifully choreographed fights (arranged by the Matrix’s Yuen Woo-Ping) plays out, to astonishing effect. Breathtaking, beautiful, tender, tough and magical, Crouching Tiger is all the more remarkable when you consider that it’s not even made by a martial arts director. Lee’s previous film was an undervalued western, Ride with the Devil. His next was an undervalued comic-book adaptation, Hulk.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – at Amazon