REVIEW: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Simu Liu as Shang-Chi in SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS — Photo: Marvel Studios / Jasin Boland / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton — Screenplay by Destin Daniel Cretton, Dave Callaham (Wonder Woman 1984), and Andrew Lanham.

The future of the movie theater industry has been the source of much debate in film fan circles during the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic. Films have had their theatrical release delayed, some films have been released on premium-video-on-demand, such as Disney+ with Premiere Access, at the same time that they have been released in theaters, while, in the United States, most if not all Warner Bros. films from 2021 have been released in movie theaters and on HBO Max for no additional cost on the very same day, which was the case with The Suicide Squad. So, in addition to the fact that movie theaters have to accept the ongoing pandemic, movie theaters now also contend with subscriptions, streaming services, and premium-video-on-demand.

Now, it would appear that movie theaters have also begun to fight back against this trend with the one thing they can do, which is to refuse to release a studio’s film in theaters. Strangely, although it, unlike Black Widow, has not been released on Disney+ with Premiere Access, major theater chains have stuck by their Disney boycott with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. In Denmark, I think only about ten theaters are showing it currently, which is a real shame because Shang-Chi is rad and well-worth the price of admission.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which was filmed during the global pandemic, tells the origin story of its titular hero, Shang-Chi (played by Simu Liu). Shang-Chi is the son of the ancient warlord Wenwu (played by Tony Leung), who, a thousand years ago, discovered and harnessed the power of these magical ten rings that granted him immortality and great power. Wenwu sought to expand his power, and his search eventually, in 1996, led him to a mystical and moving maze-like forest, which was meant to guard the entrance to the mythical village of Ta-Lo. In the forest, he met Ying Li (played by Fala Chen), its female guardian who, through martial arts and by controlling the elements around her, was able to stand toe-to-toe with Wenwu.

To their surprise, Wenwu and Ying Li fell deeply in love, brought children into the world (including Shang-Chi), and decided to leave their old lives behind, and yet Wenwu was still not granted entrance into Ta-Lo. When Wenwu lost his wife, he became despondent and vengeful, and he decided to return to the life he had left behind, which meant that he began training his children to become assassins. Years later, in the present day, Shang-Chi, now known primarily as ‘Shaun,’ has left his father’s enterprise and emigrated to San Francisco, California. But when he and his friend, Katy (played by Awkwafina), is attacked on the bus by Wenwu’s henchmen, Shang-Chi realizes that his father intends to steal a family heirloom and use it to force his way into the hidden village of Ta-Lo. Shang-Chi now must return to the life he left behind and protect the village that his mother once guarded.

At this point, it feels like Marvel just knows how to make a good origin story. Although many of these origin stories can feel like they are based on a tried-and-true formula, like how Doctor Strange probably reminded a lot of people of Iron Man. But I would say that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, though definitely a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, feels different. This unique story for the Marvel Cinematic Universe is uniquelly indebted to asian culture, as it includes a lot of martial arts, distinctly asian mythological creatures, and, thankfully, several scenes in the characters’ original language (this should always be the norm, but it isn’t always, which is why I point it out).

I always feel like it is really exciting when Marvel Studios choose to tell the story of a relatively unknown comic book character and, thusly, update his origin for a modern audience. The Guardians of the Galaxy is the first film I think of when it comes to superhero films that are about characters that most of the moviegoing public knew next-to-nothing about before they first experienced a film about them. Now, even though Shang-Chi is unique, it still feels like a part of the earthly films of this cinematic universe, and one reference-heavy tournament-sequence, in particular, seems to have been included to make sure fans feel that way.

The story does work very hard to introduce its unique elements, and that is certainly understandable. There is an abundance of expositional dialogue, as the film tries to explain both Wenwu’s historic origin, the titular character’s family heritage, and the unique world that his mother guarded. On top of that, it even somewhat successfully tries to retcon the events of Iron Man 3, the 2013 trilogy-conclusion to a film series that the ten rings have been mentioned in previously.

Outside of the film’s very satisfying willingness to play with its mythology and the fantastical elements thereof (that I would rather not spoil), Tony Leung is the film’s great secret weapon. The film features several flashback scenes, but I didn’t feel pulled back and forth, and that is because Leung is the anchor for the film, even though he plays its antagonist, and thus his is perhaps one of the more interesting antagonists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His opening fight sequence with Fala Chen’s character was exactly what I wanted from the film, and I was just spellbound by the movie from that moment on.

Though he is a relative newcomer (his biggest role previously was in the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience), Simu Liu is charming and he carries the film very well. He is more than believable as the titular martial artist assassin-turned-valet-turned-superhero, and I really enjoyed the energy that he brought to the fight scenes he took part in. Awkwafina (with whom Liu shares strong chemistry), Tony Leung, and Michelle Yeoh do some heavy-lifting in making sure the comedic and the more heartfelt scenes work, but I really do think Simu Liu is solid here, and I’d love for this to be a star-making performance for him.

There are several action set-pieces here that you will be thinking about as you leave the theater, such as the thrill-ride of a sequence on a San Francisco bus that introduces the world to the powers of this film’s protagonist, but my favourite of these action scenes were the ones in which the film seemed particularly indebted to what I interpreted to be wuxia-inspired wirework-action fight sequences, though I don’t claim to be an expert on this martial arts-film subgenre.

Now, admittedly, there are some hiccups along the way, though. I do think this film has a couple of notable issues. Other than, like I mentioned, the fact that several scenes include expositional dialogue, there is a little bit of a lull in the action about two-thirds into the film, or so, and the final act is slightly overwhelming and excessive. Also, though most of the action seems well-choreographed, executed, and is exciting, some of the action shots feel like they are too close, to such an extent that it sometimes felt like you could lose sense of what exactly was going on in successive frames. Perhaps most disappointingly, during the final act there is a climactic one-on-one fight sequence set in a drab and dark CGI-heavy non-location, which is just not very exciting to watch, even though the action is good and the actors are acting their hearts out, as they battle for control of the ten rings.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the 25th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is an exhilarating martial arts superhero film. The film has a surprisingly complex antagonist, well-choreographed action fight scenes, heart and humor thanks to the committed performances from Awkwafina, Liu, and Leung, and excellent mythical and fantastical surprises along the way that keep you on your toes. Marvel fans won’t want to miss this exciting introduction to a soon-to-be fan-favorite character, but I also think that regular moviegoing audiences will find a lot to love here.

8.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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