A magical mash-up from start to finish, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings casts a kinetic, jubilant spell. This bright, bold Pacific Rim adventure delivers a high-octane, high-stakes hero’s journey with stunning martial arts action, laugh-out-loud comedy, and turbulent family drama that stretches from the streets of San Francisco to exotic Macao. Plus, it officially kicks off the latest phase of Marvel Studios’ remarkably interwoven superhero blockbusters and television shows with a number of connections to previous and upcoming films and series. Yet, like the massive box-office hit Black Panther, you need no prior knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (a.k.a. the MCU) or comic book canon to enjoy it. Expertly directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy), Shang Chi easily stands on its own as a generation-spanning good versus evil faceoff propelled by a cavalcade of over-the-top fight scenes and leavened by genial modern-day humor.
Shang-Chi was created in the 1970s as Marvel Comics’ master of kung-fu to piggyback on the rise of martial-arts sensation Bruce Lee and the proliferation of Hong Kong’s questionably labeled “chop-socky” films — those that featured Lee and those that didn’t. But even as Shang-Chi became an afterthought in the comic book pages, this style of filmmaking endured in Asia, especially with the addition of period sorcery elements adapted from Chinese myth. Elegantly appointed, elaborately costumed adventures such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero would bring prestige and critical acclaim to the expanded genre. Meanwhile, Jackie Chan became an international star with a daredevil, comedic take on this brand of movie, marked by his jaw-dropping stunt work and joyfully goofy characterizations. And deadly sword-wielding ninjas, solo and in packs, began to turn up in a variety of globe-spanning thrillers with increasing frequency. All of this could be said to set the stage for the debut of Shang-Chi on the big screen in the first Asian-led superhero movie from Marvel.
DESTINY CALLS FROM ACROSS THE SEA
Simu Liu — whose acting breakthrough was the role of the loveable slacker son Jung on the popular sitcom Kim’s Convenience — is the main focus in Shang-Chi. Leaning on the affability and innate decency he brought to the character of Jung, Liu absolutely shines as Shang-Chi, who’s known to his friends in San Francisco as Shaun. This is a guy who parks cars at a fancy hotel to pay the rent and, after work, gets hammered in karaoke bars with his BFF and fellow valet Katy (the hilariously motor-mouthed Awkwafina of Crazy Rich Asians and the TV series Nora from Queens). Unknown to his San Francisco pals, Shaun’s life began an ocean away in China where he and his sister (Meng’er Zhang) were raised by two very powerful people: Jiang Li, a woman with an uncanny connection to natural forces, and Wenwu, a deadly Chinese warlord and gang boss-of-bosses who turned away from the dark side and gave up his supernatural weaponry — the 10 rings of the movie’s title — upon marriage and fatherhood. Then, the death of Jiang Li drove Wenwu back to his power-mongering ways.
Despite a childhood dominated by training that would prepare him to enter the family business, Shang-Chi had no desire to be the heir to Wenwu’s criminal empire. Instead, the young man escaped to America, specifically the City by the Bay, which is where he and Katy are attacked by Wenwu’s men early in the movie. This encounter occurs on a runaway 1-California Muni bus, and it’s just the first in a parade of astonishing action sequences that are so original and seemingly death-defying that Jackie Chan would be proud of them. As the bus speeds up and over Nob Hill and ends up careening down Bay Street, Shang-Chi engages in close-quarters combat, instinctively using seats, handrails, doors, and the fighting skills he learned as a boy to gain an advantage over his assailants. A subsequent clash between Shang-Chi and some ninjas, with Katy caught between them, occurs on scaffolding attached to the side of a skyscraper, many stories above the ground. Like the fracas on the 1-California, it’s positively thrilling. And things only get wilder and more mystical when Shang-Chi and Katy find themselves in Macao, the starting point of a quest to find a secret village and a fortress where creatures of myth dwell.
Here, we learn of Wenwu’s master plan and how it might undermine Shang-Chi’s chosen path as well as expand the Ten Rings’ control beyond China’s borders. Rather than being a one-note villain, Wenwu is a complex creation. His emotions and motivations are given resonance by Tony Leung, whose career as one of Hong Kong’s most revered and versatile leading men has ranged from Wong Kar-Wai’s gorgeous romance In the Mood for Love to the grim and gritty detective thriller Infernal Affairs to the martial-arts fantasy Hero to the bio-pic The Grandmaster. His physical gifts and passion are on full display in Shang-Chi, particularly during a clash between Wenwu and Jiang Li (Fala Chen) that’s performed with balletic grace harkening back to Zhang Yimou’s elegantly directed, dreamlike forest sequences in Hero.
OUTDOING THE COMPETITION
Besides Leung’s talent and the jocular rapport between Liu and the up-for-anything Awkwafina, the cast also greatly benefits from the presence of Michelle Yeoh — Chinese cinema royalty whose transition to English-language movies (Tomorrow Never Dies, Gunpowder Milkshake, and others) and TV shows (Star Trek: Discovery, The Witcher, and more) has been effortless. Yeoh’s wry, nimble turn as Shang-Chi’s aunt is a welcome addition, as are supporting players Ben Kingsley and Benedict Wong, whose characters longtime Marvelites will recognize and cheer.
Although Hasbro’s G.I. Joe film franchise did beat it to the marketplace with the recent release of the martial-arts-themed Snake Eyes, Shang-Chi is much better in all ways: narrative, actors, special effects, and cinematography. There’s little contest between the two movies when it comes to the crucial aspect of how the major set pieces and more intimate fight scenes are shot. No shaky-cam or confusing quick cuts undermine the logic of the combat sequences in Shang-Chi.
The last act of Shang-Chi is jam-packed to the point of being cluttered and frenetic, but everything that precedes it is so sharp or eye-bogglingly amazing and, in the case of Liu and Awkwafina, so charming and cheerful that it doesn’t hamper the overall experience. Plus it’s followed by a mid-credits and an end-credits scene that are worth waiting to see. Yes, there’s some Easter-eggy Marvel fan service here, and there are references to what’s happened before and what may be happen soon in the decade-plus movie saga. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of the better origin stories in the MCU, which makes it a terrific place to leap into the fray if you desire.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens in Bay Area theaters on Sept. 3.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABNet.net, Roku, Spotify, and YouTube, and The Mark Thompson Show on KGO radio. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster