Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and all the images you see in this review are owned by Disney
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Things are starting to get a bit dicey out there with the latest COVID variant, so we’ll see how many more of the big movies are gonna come to theaters this year or get pushed back once again, so that COULD mean that this movie is the last big tent pole we’ll get for some time; almost fitting that the brief window between the “end of COVID” and “the rise of the Delta” is bookended by Marvel movies. In any case, Shang-Chi is probably the most obscure Marvel character that’s gotten a big release like this since Guardians of the Galaxy, but the mix of old school martial arts flavor to a franchise that’s mostly focused on Super Hero Romps and Space Adventures certainly gives this a unique place in the canon. Does this manage to break the Marvel mold in bold and exciting ways, or is it more of the same from the world’s most dependable film studio? Let’s find out!!
A long time ago in China, a warlord known as Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) discovers ten magical rings that not only make him a badass warrior but also give him eternal life, so like any conquer with a lot of time on his hands he creates a secret organization of warriors who are always in the background of major global events and are consolidating more and more power. One particular power that Wenwu wishes to get control of is the magic found within the lost city of Ta Lo, and while he doesn’t manage to get through the door he DOES meet the bouncer who tells him to go away. Said bouncer is Ying Li who never allows Wenwu into the city but does fall in love with him and choses to leave it behind to be a part of his world and he, in turn, gives up the life of crime to raise a family. How did that all work out? Well we cut to twenty or so years later where Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), the son of Wenwu and Li is living under an assumed name in San Francisco, so things may not have gone too well on that front. Mom is out of the picture, dad is back to his warlording ways, and his sister Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) is off doing her own thing somewhere else. Shang-Chi is more than happy to while away his boring life with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) but when a bunch of his dad’s thugs attack him on a bus and take the necklace his mother gave him, he knows that he can’t hide any longer and that his sister must be next since she also has a necklace from their mother. Can Shang-Chi and Katy protect his sister from whatever scheme his father is setting into motion and perhaps finally confront the problems that have torn this family apart? What happened in the intervening years that has scattered them across the globe, and does it have anything to do with what Wenwu is planning now? Seriously, why did he take Awkwafina along? Her quick wit and excellent sense of humor are always fun, but there are ninjas all over the place!
Going to see a Marvel movie is one of the safest bets you can make when trying to find a good movie to see. There have been some exceptions of course like Thor 2 and Black Widow, but for the most part, you are not going to leave the theater disappointed if you take a chance on an MCU flick. Needless to say that this is the case here as Disney has once again found a genre to put their stamp on and have made a pretty darn good movie in the process; A big adventure film that feels distant enough from the MCU to not be weighed down by the canon and finds more than enough unique angles for the overall look and feel to it even if some of the notes are still the same. It’s not without a lot of the typical Marvel flaws which are starting to grate more and more as time goes on, particularly when it comes to bland antagonists and CG monsters, and I found some of the plot points to fall a bit flat once we started heading towards the ending. Even so, the craftsmanship on display by very talented filmmakers is something worth celebrating and I had a lot of fun even if some of the twists and turns left me a little cold by the end.
Authenticity is always a question when it comes to Western studios making a movie rooted this much in another country’s culture so I’m sure there are some discussions to be had there, but as far as a Martial Arts movie it’s a solid entry in the genre and I found a lot to enjoy in just how well it captures the spirit of those movies; not to mention making it looks sleek and shiny with a budget that more than likely exceeds anything the genre has seen before. The rewards for all that talent and money is a movie with some REALLY excellent fight scenes that creatively use their environments and create a sense of urgency and scale despite more or less being about ten or so dudes punching each other. The bus fight is an easy standout as the limited space allows for some unique martial arts action, but there’s also the fight at the start of the movie between Shang-Chi’s parents, the fight between Shang-Chi and his sister in the THUNDER DOME, and even the raid that involves people fighting on scaffolding in a manner reminiscent of the final fight of Chocolate. Perhaps not as hard-hitting as the film’s ONE drawback in terms of the hand to hand action is that the extra layer of polish diminishes the impact of each hit somewhat, but then again it’s probably for the best that we’re not having our stars getting injured on every set like Jackie Chan did back in the nineties.
The story is where things start to waver a bit and since the movie becomes more and more about the narrative than the fights as it goes along it does make things a LITTLE bit tedious when we get a ways into the second act. The overall plot and tropes involved are fun what with the secret ninja clan, magic necklaces holding a dark secret, and a messed up family dynamic that would make Walter White flinch, but getting into the nitty-gritty of it involves more than one extended exposition speech. They aren’t BAD and Tony Leung who does most of the talking injects a lot of personality and pathos into the lines, but it’s never a good sign when the funny support character is literally told to be quiet and nod for about thirty minutes of the running time. Speaking of whom, Awkwafina is the obvious standout as the comic relief best friend of Shang-Chi and I found her to be VERY enjoyable to watch all the way through. Tony Leung and Meng’er Zhang give great performances as well that belie a darkness and rage bubbling beneath the surface that plays into the movie in an interesting way, but sadly the title character ends up getting the short end of the stick when it comes to interesting performances. I think it has more to do with the plot itself than Simu Liu’s performance, and every time I saw him on screen I was reminded of why Henry Golding’s performance in Snake Eyes ended up being the best aspect of that film. Shang-Chi as a character is more or less being dragged from place to place and is more often than not reacting to his circumstances rather than making decisions of his own. He’s got to do X because of Y which leads him to do Z, and by the time he’s done all of that I’m still wondering what it is he wanted out of all of this. Compare that to Snake Eyes where the ENTIRE movie revolves around the actions and decisions of its main character that has to decide what consequences he is willing to live with at every juncture in the story. Now that’s not to say there aren’t REALLY good aspects to the story as Shang-Chi’s relationship to his father is well explored and easily the most compelling aspect of the narrative, but the scope just gets too vast for it to feel like the family drama is driving plot and not the other way around.
Most of the plot-related stuff is forgivable and kind of what you expect from a blockbuster movie of this scale. Where things start to dip into BAD territory, and perhaps where I start to show my own biases, is when it comes to the third act that just doesn’t feel all that important or impactful. It’s where the movie completely gives itself over to spectacle as we go from a grounded environment to a much more mystical one and for me, it just wasn’t as interesting. It’s like spending time in an interesting city or town only to end up in a theme park; sure, the park has its charms but it’s a much more shallow experience that’s just kind of there to dazzle you. There are some okay character moments here and I would never say a scene with Michelle Yeoh is boring, but it feels like we just ended up in the same place that so many other CG heavy blockbusters end up and it feels disappointing that movie with a much larger focus on family drama and hand to hand combat isn’t able to flip the script. The big final fight ended up just washing over me as the CG went into overdrive which forced the Martial Arts to take a back seat. I liked when ONE particular creature appeared, but even with that it barely rose above mildly interesting and I was just waiting for it to be over. On top of that, some plot threads are either left unresolved or dropped entirely. There’s this second in command ninja with a mask that CLEARLY has some sort of connection and relationship with Shang-Chi which they tease early on in the movie, but then it’s never followed up on. I guess there just wasn’t enough room for that when there were knock-off Parademons to fight!
This movie and Snake Eyes create an interesting contrast with each other that I’d say would make them a good double feature. Snake Eyes is marred by obvious production issues and its inability to gracefully integrate the brand with the story they want to tell, while this fits snuggly in the MCU canon but doesn’t stretch itself far enough to make the narrative as compelling as they clearly wanted it to be. The internal conflict within Snake Eyes is brilliantly realized with a stellar performance by Henry Golding, but Simu Liu just can’t reach it as there are so many moving parts that are weaving in and out of what is supposed to be his story. Very well realized moving parts that make it feel more or less finished while Snake Eyes is barely holding itself together, so the flaws of one are accentuated by the strengths of the other and vice versa. I think when you get down to it Shang-Chi is a better constructed movie and will probably be a more satisfying experience for most people, but I’m gonna call it a tie and say they’re both worth watching. Besides, with media consolidation being what it is, we probably won’t even have to wait long for them to end up in the same movie!