Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, 2021.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.
Starring Simu Liu, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Ronny Chieng, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Tim Roth, Jodi Long, Andy Le, Rosalind Chao, Dallas Liu, Harmonie He, and Jayden Tianyi Zhang.
Shang-Chi, the master of unarmed weaponry based Kung Fu, is forced to confront his past after being drawn into the Ten Rings organization.
Throughout the first 40 minutes or so, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (co-written and directed by Short Term 12‘s Destin Daniel Cretton, with Andrew Lanham and David Callaham serving as screenwriters) shapes up to be an excellent and diverse entry in the MCU (which could be getting too bloated for its own good, but I will play devils advocate and say that all of the Marvel TV series have been outstanding so far, all for wildly different reasons).
There are two charismatic heroes with Simu Liu as the eponymous Shang-Chi discovering his powers and reconciling with his troubled past, and Awkwafina as the loudmouth funny best friend along for the adventure. Additionally, the filmmakers aren’t afraid to fully embrace Chinese culture (whether it be through mythological beasts or extended scenes forcing subtitles) while putting on a martial arts showstopper seeing Shang-Chi acrobatically maneuvering around various poles and beams regardless of if he is fighting inside a speeding bus or atop a narrow scaffolding. Sweetening the deal, the pacing doesn’t skip a beat transitioning to each electrifying set-piece (quite literally so as the titular Ten Rings seem to operate as electricity-based power that can be protracted and retracted while swinging), endearingly mixing up thrills and laughs.
All of a sudden, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings settles inside a fantastical land full of magic and majestic beasts while family drama takes over that would be riveting if it didn’t involve dad Wenwu (Chinese treasure Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, trying his damnedest to breathe life and complexity into his questionably written character) conveniently being unbelievably naïve for the sake of the story, which makes no sense considering that upon discovering the power of the rings generations ago, he has lifetimes of experience to catch onto trickery when he sees it. Nevertheless, the excuses that he is still grieving the loss of his wife Jiang Li (Fala Chen), a woman that was able to neuter his craving for world-conquering determination. She saw something in him worth loving, which is difficult to buy into here given how fast that plot point moves in whatever horrific things there were about Wenwu’s conquest to overlook.
Simply put, Wenwu believes that Jiang Li is still alive, drawing a runaway Shang-Chi back into his life (currently living in San Francisco as a valet with no ambition in life) alongside his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who started her own underground fight club (gifted competitors battle against monsters) as a way to get back at her father for not allowing her to train and become a warrior physically. The theory involves Jiang Li’s homeland, and it’s tucked away secrets that Wenwu was never allowed to explore; they both dropped their abilities (hers were more earthly elemental allowing for fights stylized as poetry in motion) after deciding to have a family, weapons that he immediately decided to go back to while coping with his loss.
While reconnecting with his Aunt Ying Nan (another legend among the cast, Michelle Yeoh), who now resides over the land (apparently, Jiang Li was exiled for choosing to love Wenwu), Shang-Chi learns that the ancient evil is trying to convince his father of the impossible. Again, Wenwu’s gullibility persists up until the end, failing to convince. The bigger issue here is that this is clearly way too much story and not enough layered characterization. As a matter of fact, most of this is delivered flatly, dragging on for far too long, with only the gorgeous landscapes and delicate costume designs keeping boredom at bay.
What can be said is that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does once again pick up the pace for an explosive final act, and one that is admittedly visually stunning and aesthetically pleasing with bright colors and popping art design, but it’s also one that completes the transformation into yet another safe and formulaic MCU origin story entry. It feels as if Destin Daniel Cretton was only allowed creative control for the first act and that the rest was handed off to someone of lesser skill like David Callaham (already responsible for one martial arts sticker this year in Mortal Kombat and the disastrous Wonder Woman 1984).
None of this is to say that the remaining 90 minutes of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is outright bad, but it does boggle the mind of why the screenwriters didn’t stick with impressive displays of athleticism and flexibility. It’s like watching a committee shy away from something new and exciting in real-time only to hit the tired standard superhero origin story beats. Most of all, it’s frustrating and slightly insulting to Simu Liu, vocal and passionate about the project, clearly demonstrating early on that he can carry the movie without all the usual CGI galore climax. Awkwafina also gets a few serious moments, reminding everyone that she is capable of so much more than crude humor as she takes up archery, making herself useful on the battlefield. The ingredients are there, the time is now for representation, the stars are charismatic, and there is a great deal of fun to be had. Still, Marvel once again proves to be their own worst enemy regarding the difference between disposable entertainment and crafting something legitimately great.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com