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‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ fights the good fight

September 6, 2021
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It’s tough to refute the notion that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the most significant segment of the cinematic landscape over the past 15 or so years. The MCU is omnipresent, as close to a fully shared movie experience as anything.

But time waits for no one. Not even superheroes.

The characters who have served as the foundation of the MCU – as well as the actors who play them – are moving on. The shift was always inevitable, but now, in Phase Four, things are really starting to snowball.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” – directed by Destin Daniel Cretton – reads as a bit of a departure for the powers that be at Marvel. This is a character that is arguably the most obscure yet to receive a headlining film of their own, a character that is fundamentally different in many ways – both overt and subtle – than those that have come before.

It’s a bold choice – and an effective one.

This film tries to do something we haven’t seen before from the MCU. Yes, the Marvel formula is still in effect, but it is being applied in a novel way. We’ve seen these movies riff on other genres – space operas and paranoid thrillers and war movies – but this is the first time we’ve ventured toward the realm of Eastern action cinema. This is a Marvel movie that both stars and is directed by people of Asian descent.

Do you want to see an MCU kung fu movie? Because that’s what this is. And it works.

Centuries ago, a man named Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) gains control of the legendary Ten Rings, weapons that grant their bearer great power and immortality. Wenwu uses that power to amass power for himself, building a fearsome secretive empire. But he wants more, always more. To expand that power, he seeks out the hidden village of Ta Lo, a place rumored to be the home to great mystical energies. In 1996, he finds it, only to be fought off by the guardian of the place, a woman named Ying Li (Fala Chen).

Despite his defeat, Wenwu finds himself drawn to Li, and she to her. They fall in love and start a family; he even puts down the rings. But when Li dies at the hands of an old enemy, Wenwu decides to return to his old ways, only this time, he brings his two children with him.

In the present day, we meet Shaun (Simu Liu). He’s got a relatively simple and carefree life; he lives in a basement apartment in San Francisco and has a job as a parking valet alongside his longtime best friend Katy (Awkwafina). Both are drifting through life, content to work their jobs and party at night, despite those around them who feel that both are wasting their potential.

But when Shaun and Katy are attacked by a gang of thugs led by a guy with a huge blade for a hand – and Shaun fights them all off – we learn that not all is what it seems. As it turns out, Shaun’s real name is Shang-Chi and he is the son of Xu Wenwu; he spent his formative years being trained as an assassin before eventually fleeing his father’s influence, leaving his younger sister behind.

Wenwu wants to bring both of his children back into the fold in hopes of getting them to help him on his new crusade. He thinks he has a way to bring their mother back – a way that involves going back to Ta Lo. The scheme involves getting Shang-Chi (and Katy, who insists on coming along) to Macau, where Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) runs an underground fighting ring.

But Wenwu’s quest might well be a misguided one; there’s a real chance that if he succeeds, it might mean the end of not just Ta Lo, but the universe as we know it. And it’s up to Shang-Chi to figure out how to stop a man who has spent a thousand years harnessing the power of the Ten Rings.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is good. It’s really good. The action sequences are tight and there are some solid jokes. The characters are engaging and the narrative is well-constructed. It slots into the greater MCU while also standing along in a way that not many of these films actually manage. Above all, it’s fun.

Origin stories can be a drag, but this one works for a couple of reasons. First, this is a character with whom relatively few people are intimately familiar, so it doesn’t feel repetitive. Secondly – and perhaps more importantly – it’s told in a different way; the origin isn’t laid out linearly, Instead, the story is parceled out in pieces throughout the film, allowing us to get to know the person in both the past and the present at the same time. I don’t know if it would work for every character, but for this one, it’s extremely effective.

One of the joys of films that feature martial artistry is the close-up nature of the action sequences. There are a LOT of skilled performers in this film, resulting in some genuinely beautiful fight scenes that largely dispense with the overly CGI-ed pew-pew battles that permeate the genre. Don’t get me wrong – there’s some large-scale stuff of that ilk, but it isn’t the lion’s share of the action. It feels practical and physical in a way that is sometimes lost in these films.

The performances are great as well. Simu Liu is excellent as Shang-Chi; obviously, you need someone who can handle the physical demands of the role, but he’s more than capable of handling the emotional and comedic requirements as well. He shines with star quality in this role. Awkwafina is a figure of some controversy these days, but she’s undeniably a strong comic foil here; comedic sidekick is a tough niche to fill in the MCU, but she manages quite nicely. Meng’er Zhang endows Xialing with an enigmatic quality that nicely complements Shang-Chi’s more boisterous energy. I’ll mention Michelle Yeoh here – she’s in this film in a part that I won’t detail, but understand that she gives her usual awesome performance. Oh, and this film marks the Hollywood debut of Tony Leung, who is an absolute icon of Hong Kong cinema, one of the greatest actors of his generation. It’s an outstanding performance from a true legend.

(There are other performances that are delightful that I won’t address simply because they would constitute spoilers. Suffice it to say, you’ll know them when you see them and you will be happy to have done so.)

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” kicks ass. It is thrilling and funny and surprisingly poignant, a wonderful mélange of on-point action, drama and humor with a just-right amount of fan service and overarching story connection. If this is the kind of film we can expect from Phase Four, then rest assured that the MCU’s future remains bright.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 06 September 2021 10:03

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