SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS – Review by Brandy McDonnell
The first Asian superhero in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes his bow with “Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings.”
The 25th film in the mega-franchise brings enough that’s fresh and fantastical to keep what feels like Marvel Studios’ umpteenth origin story from becoming too formulaic and stale.
Despite some muddled narrative moments, a playful sense of humor, a slew of adrenaline-pumping fight scenes and all-around strong performances make the movie an entertaining first outing not only for the titular hero but also for several intriguing new characters.
Not only is “Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” the first MCU film to feature an Asian actor in the lead role, but the entire cast also is predominantly Asian.
Directed by Japanese-American helmer Destin Daniel Cretton (“Just Mercy”) and penned by Chinsese-American screenwriter Dave Callaham (“Wonder Woman 1984”), the film manages to move beyond the comic-book series’ troubled 1970s origins as well as beyond some of the go-to stereotypes that still crop up in movies and television shows with alarming frequency.
There are no super-nerdy Asian men or fetish-ready Asian women, and the movie is all the better for it. Even when they are wielding magical flying bracelets or commanding powerful dragons, the characters seem much more realistic than the caricatures that have all too often passed for Asian representation in the past.
After famously campaigning for the lead role via Twitter back in 2018, Chinese-Canadian stuntman and actor Simu Liu (the Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience”) proves he has star power to spare as Shang-Chi, also known as Shaun.
Raised as an assassin by his father, Wenwu (Hong Kong cinema legend Tony Leung), a mighty Chinese crime lord who leads a shadowy organization called the Ten Rings, Shaun fled as a teenager to America. He keeps a low profile in San Francisco, working alongside his longtime bestie Katy (Awkwafina) as a valet at a swanky hotel, until a group of his father’s trained killers, led by the blade-handed heavy Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), attack Shaun on his daily bus ride.
The attack suddenly sweeps Shaun and Katy on a ocean-spanning adventure that will force Shang-Chi to reckon with his problematic past, his complicated family history and his own destiny.
Fortunately, Liu proves equally convincing as a likeable regular guy hiding behind an underachiever’s facade, as a martial arts master determined to use his impressive skills for good and as a hero worthy of joining the Avengers.
Although the movie rightly stays focused on Shang-Chi’s journey, he gets plenty of much-needed help from the capable, caring and powerful women in his life. As expected, Awkwafina’s Katy is funny, but she’s more than just comic relief. She’s relatable, loyal and resourceful, with a penchant for joy-riding that comes in handy.
A formidable warrior tasked with guardian her mystical village of Ta Lo, Shang-Chi’s mother, Li (Fala Chen) is wise, warm and willing to sacrifice her life for her family. Her sister, Shang-Chi’s Auntie Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh, another Hong Kong cinematic legend), proves an inspiring mentor and martial arts master.
But one of the film’s most compelling characters is Shang-Chi’s estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who has trained in secret to become a fearsome fighter in her own right and sets out to establish her own empire to rival her father’s. Sign me up for the Xialing Disney+ spin-off series right now.
The difference between a mediocre superhero movie and a thrilling tentpole often comes down to the villain, and Leung brings his legendary intensity and charisma to the MCU.
His Wenwu is a complicated character whose extreme contradictions fuel the narrative: For a thousand years, he uses the power of the mystical and mysterious title artifacts to ruthlessly build his army and empire. When his efforts to invade the mythical hidden village of Ta Lo are thwarted by Li, its peaceable protector, he is intrigued and spellbound by her. After they marry, he vows to give up his wicked ways, settled down and start a family with her.
When his past comes back to haunt him, Wenwu doesn’t hesitate to pick up the 10 rings again and return to his warlord ways. Despite his brutal tendencies, his love for his wife and children often seems genuine, and that conflict keeps the story interesting.
“Shang-Chi” is Cretton’s first big-budget action movie, but the director clearly understood the assignment. His entry into the MCU is chock full of innovative fight sequences, with the locales ranging from the inside of a bus to the scaffolding around a half-built skyscraper.
The movie doesn’t just stick to one fighting style, either, paying homage to an array of cinematic martial arts moments, from the jaw-dropping physicality of Jackie Chan movies to the mesmerizingly graceful wuxia-style scenes popularized by “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
All that Marvel money comes in handy in bringing to life some eye-popping magical creatures that Shang-Chi and his cohorts encounter on their adventures, including guardian lions, phoenix-like fenghuang and an oddly cuddly faceless, furry creature with wings called a dijiang. And not to give to much away, but there be dragons, too.
For all the family drama, fantastic beasts and epic battles, “Shang-Chi” is a frequently funny and often playful movie, with even the fight sequences injected with laugh-out-loud moments.
Awkwafina and Liu both have excellent timing, and they have excellent comedic chemistry together, whether they’re having an intense conversation interrupted by a less-than-efficient flight attendant or engaging in some ill-advised karaoke.
Executive produced by pioneering music collective 88rising – a leading music platform for Asian and Asian-American artists across the world – the banging soundtrack features Anderson.Paak, Rich Brian, Swae Lee, Jhené Aiko, Mark Tuan, Saweetie, Audrey Nuna, NIKI, Guapdad 4000, Warren Hue, keshi, 21 Savage, Rick Ross, DJ Snake and more.
The film even manages to bring added value to an Eagles classic that arguably has been overplayed over the years.
Since it’s part of the ever-expanding MCU, “Shang-Chi” was guaranteed to have a few Marvel cameos. The trailers already offered a tantalizing glimpse into a fight between “Doctor Strange” ally Wong (Benedict Wong) and “The Incredible Hulk” baddie Abomination (Tim Roth), but another callback cameo becomes a key part of the movie’s plot.
Plus, the now-requisite mid-credits and end-credit sequences don’t disappoint in offering a look at how – and with whom – the latest Marvel origin story will fit into the future phases of the MCU.
The lingering COVID-19 pandemic isn’t making the movie business easy, so Disney is mixing up its strategy. “Shang-Chi” is out exclusively in theaters Sept. 3. Unlike “Black Widow,” it isn’t coming to Disney + Premier Access on the same day.
Disney hasn’t revealed the exact day that “Shang-Chi” will be on its streaming service, but the Mouse House did reveal earlier this year that it’s trimming the exclusive theatrical window for its films from 90 days to 45. So, that means “Shang-Chi” could be fighting his way onto Disney+ in about a month and a half.
With its epic scope and speedy fight sequences, “Shang-Chi” is worth seeing on the big screen for those comfortable venturing into theaters. But for those who aren’t ready for that because of COVID-19, at least the wait for streaming won’t be too long.