Saturday 11 September 2021

The Chinese way: "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings"

After a year in which many of the graven cinematic orthodoxies - not least that our blockbusters had to be seen in cinemas - were toppled over by a microscopic virus, Disney and Marvel are back to making boffo box-office: the multiplex is healing. (First sign of this renewed economic confidence: I see we're back to a full 25 minutes of pre-film adverts, most of those for upcoming Marvel spin-offs.) Right through to its concluding soundtrack cue, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings intends to be no more than a late-summer goof, the Ragnarok before the inbound Eternals' continuation of Endgame's sturm-und-drang. I was reminded of how The X-Files eventually bifurcated into standalone jollies and po-faced mythology pushers, and how the former were almost always preferable; I was also reminded that even those Marvel movies that aren't about Spider-Man are fated to repeat themselves, to some degree. Shang-Chi represents this conglomerate's most brazen pitch to the prosperous Asian market - itself now at an advanced stage of post-Covid recovery - since Disney's live-action Mulan: it takes that handful of Asian and Asian-American actors Niki Caro passed on, casts them as avatars in a kung fu-inflected fantasy universe, and then spends two hours and ten minutes sprinkling them all in the now-standard, good-natured Marvel fairy dust. "I always bet on Asian," quips the proprietor of an onscreen fight club, one of those lines that a) sounds good in a trailer, and b) slyly tips the wink to progressive-minded viewers that progress of a sort - Representation with a capital R - is being achieved here. Looking at the global box-office returns from Shang-Chi's opening ten days, no-one can argue that that bet hasn't paid off.

This despite the fact that what's up on screen really is no more than Origin Story 101. Everyjoe - here, Simu Liu's lowly valet - discovers he's not as ordinary as he thought; is obliged to reconcile any insecurities with his newfound powers; and an hour later finds himself in the middle of a lore-and-scenery-altering roustabout. Come back for more amazing adventures with Shang-Chi and his amazing ten rings (essentially magic Cheerios that encase the bearer in a protective bubble, much as Ready Brek used to in those 1980s adverts) next time. One cultural variation would be that this Everyjoe is the child of overbearing Asian parents: Shang-Chi's dad (Tony Leung, as the character originally created as Fu Manchu and since rebranded as The Mandarin) wants his offspring to follow him into the field of tyranny, rather than, say, medicine or law. Director Destin Cretton and his small committee of writers have been a bit crafty about delaying a lot of their scene-setting rigmarole until Act Two, and then getting Leung, arguably the most overqualified of Marvel recruits, to deliver it. (Tom Hiddleston's comments that Thor was really just like Shakespeare read, a decade on, like pre-emptive special pleading on behalf of that swelling troupe of skilled performers being handsomely rewarded for having to gabble awful expositionary dross.) But it's one of several choices here that succeed in moving the film along. We've already seen a fun punch-up on an out-of-control bus that splices the closequarters stuntwork of the recent Nobody into a ten-minute stretch of Speed (tried-and-tested, if not entirely unoriginal, but not the worst idea any movie's had this summer); half the family backstory comes out in the course of an intercontinental flight, the other when Shang-Chi squares up to his own sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) in a cage fight.

In other words, we're half a world away from the leaden first steps of a film like Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins - the modern blockbuster's original sin - which took an entire movie to tell us a story we already knew, so as to persuade mewling nerds who think they aren't being taken seriously that both they and their stories will be taken very seriously indeed. Shang-Chi is fleet of foot, and treads comparatively lightly: it gets us in and gets us out, so the Cineworld staff can come in and clean up before the next Marvel extravaganza pulls into Screen One in a fortnight. It's painless, which obviously puts it one up on the merciless shithousing of a contemporary like The Suicide Squad. Is it pleasurable? Well, in fits and spots, which may be as much as calculated proficiency can ever be pleasurable. I'll give it this: it's the first Marvel movie where the level of thespwaste falls within broadly acceptable parameters. (Cretton gets the credit for this: he makes sure everyone has something fun or useful to do.) Liu and Awkwafina make for a fine, joshing double-act, surfing a casual vibe, as if they were the same before the cameras started rolling and after somebody called cut; that's a nice thing to encounter in the middle of a movie conceived on this overpowering scale. And Leung really is miraculously good: he delivers that folderol with an uncommon levity and then, in the closing moments, invests his plastic action figure of a character with some semblance of soul. There's also a surprise cameo from someone who's featured elsewhere in the MCU, and yet who remains almost exactly the last person you'd expect to reappear in this context: a genuine curveball. (For the first time, I was tempted to go back and revisit an earlier film, to see what on earth they might be doing here, and what it is they're blathering on about.)

Some of my usual MCU reservations still hold. This is one of those entries that never feels like much more than a placeholder, lacking even the bantamweight dramatic heft of an Infinity War: it's a family tiff that's been trumped up with dragons, the massed ranks of the Akira Kurosawa archers and some kind of tsunami. (The plot could be patched up with a phone call.) And I was about to say that, once again, there isn't a single shot you remember once you've emerged in the lobby, except there's a moment - the briefest of cutaways, shot either by Cretton or one of those inhouse second unit directors who supervise all Marvel's action - which crystallises something essential to the entire MCU project. It comes during the scaffolding fight that marks the transition between the film's first and second acts (context: Shang-Chi knows he's inherited powers, but remains shaky on his feet), and immediately follows a shot of Awkwafina apparently being cast into the void on some kind of loosed pipe. We see the character being clawed to safety by Xialing - but look sharp for the insert of Shang-Chi himself looking down to witness this rescue mission taking place. There's no narrative need for this cutaway: our hero is several hundred metres away on the scaffolding, involved in life-or-death battles of his own. Rather, the need is psychological, almost: it's been added so we can rest easy, knowing Shang-Chi knows everything is OK and can therefore fight on without the trauma of knowing his friend has plummeted to her doom. I see the appeal of this reassurance - especially for younger viewers, for whom mild peril might be the first peril they've encountered in a darkened room - but these films are never going to qualify as great action cinema while they so assiduously neutralise the element of risk. (A risk that's been written into the cinema from the off: the sequence conjures the spectres of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last and Laurel and Hardy in Liberty, before putting everybody in parachute pants and stacking crashmats around them.) There are worse things zipping around your local multiplex right now, granted, but bets this safe really shouldn't impress us as much as they have.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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