‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ Review – A Thrilling Martial Arts Odyssey

How the hell do you introduce a new superhero this far into the Marvel game? This is something the MCU has to contend with as the roster gets bigger, and Shang-Chi is the newest member post-Endgame. For one, you stack the right talent: director Destin Daniel Cretton at the helm, a storied action cinematographer in Bill Pope, the late Brad Allan as fight choreographer, along with a dizzying who’s who of a predominantly Asian cast. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may be burdened with the standard grooves of an origin story, but it blazes past the stumbling block to the tune of a martial arts action romp.

Shang-Chi’s history in the comics is, uh, complicated to say the least. The son of racist caricature Fu Manchu and little more than an accessory when teaming up with the Avengers, Shang-Chi was reduced the same way real-life inspiration Bruce Lee was in Hollywood: a whitewashed stand-in for the real thing. Shang-Chi fell into obscurity until his revival in recent years, coinciding with the MCU’s own film introduction. Which is to say, Shang-Chi was overdue some course-correcting.

Shang-Chi ditches all connotations of “Yellow Peril” and grounds the character through a harrowing family drama. Yes, Shang-Chi trained his whole life to live up to his father, but the film doesn’t drown us in teachings of mysticism and disciplines, not at first anyway. What’s real and immediate is the conflict between father and son, between embittered siblings, and the conflict that arises when all parties reunite after years of estrangement.

Tony Leung does the most correcting on the franchise front, pulling double duty. Fu Manchu is erased in favor of a more complex villain in Wenwu, and the film addresses the MCU’s prior reference to the Ten Rings. What seems like an obligation to right a past wrong instead becomes a gripping anecdote detailing Wenwu’s tortured ambition. Leung has such gravitas as an actor that you forget it’s all retconning and exposition. His voice makes it feel crucial to Wenwu’s point of view.

Leung speaks like the weight of destiny falling on Shang-Chi’s shoulders. Forty-minutes in when we’re reintroduced to Wenwu in the present-day, I found myself chuckling because Leung had already painted such a complicated tapestry and he only had three scenes up until that point. Leung doesn’t need multiple movies, motion capture, or a modulated voice to be compelling as a villain. He conveys menace with a single stare.

Much has been said about this being Wenwu’s movie over its own star, and I think that’s only because Leung gives the richest performance of the cast. Make no mistake, this is Simu Liu’s vehicle; it just happens to have a mighty father-son conflict.

As Shang-Chi, Liu sports the boyish charm of Paul Rudd and the well-meaning naivete of Chris Evans. But it’s how he plays haunted that particularly shines. That Wenwu moment I mentioned earlier, half of that is sold by Leung, the other half is through Liu. He comes face-to-face with a father he spent half his life running from. Here they are again, paths colliding like fate, and Liu plays this earth-shattering moment with equal parts resentment and the pain of a dutiful son. (Ask any Asian; that familial expectation weighs like a planet.) Shang-Chi moves A LOT when he fights. Liu speaks volumes when he’s at his most still and silent.

This plays to director Destin Daniel Cretton’s strengths. Having done Short Term 12 and Just Mercy, Cretton has a particular handle on interiority and empathy, how an environment and upbringing shapes a person and vice-versa. Shang-Chi isn’t a hero out of the gate; he was bred as an assassin and thinks there’s only one way to remove the biggest villain in his life. His coming-of-age lesson is learning how to make peace with the dragon, not slaying it— dragon-slaying being a Western trope in hero narratives.

This may make it sound weighty and Shakespearean (and it is) but the film is full of levity and humor. Awkwafina’s wit and line delivery is its own weapon here – simultaneously adding to the sheer ludicrousness of each situation while also poking fun at how ludicrous the situations get.

Elsewhere in the cast, Meng’er Zhang makes her film debut as Xu Xialing, Shang-Chi’s ambitious sister, instantly becoming a fan-favorite. Then there’s Michelle Yeoh; if you’re gonna have high-flying martial artistry in your movie, THEN YOU’D BETTER CAST HER. In case anyone was wondering, Yeoh can absolutely still kick ass.

Let’s face it, some of us are here for the action and I’m happy to report that Shang-Chi DELIVERS. It helps to have a crew behind the camera that knows how to shoot this shit, and it helps tremendously to have a star that knows how to perform this shit too. Simu Liu worked as a stuntman once upon a time and that background is key to unlocking the film’s bare bones-style spectacle, each fight scene becoming more audacious than the last.

The other Avengers fight frequently in tight closeups; Liu pulls off multiple moves in wide angles. My man can do a split kick in a single frame, or take his jacket off mid-scuffle and put it back on in the same shot – and this is just in the film’s wowser of a bus sequence.

The late Brad Allan was Shang-Chi’s fight choreographer and his trademarks are all over this. Allan loved (and I mean LOVED) acrobatics in fight scenes. Look at Kingsman: The Secret Service, or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World where he and DP Bill Pope first linked up their talents. In Shang-Chi, the henchman come flying and flipping into frame and Liu rises to the athletic challenge.

There have been many comparisons to Jackie Chan following Shang-Chi’s release and I see nothing wrong with that. Brad Allan and fellow stunt coordinator Andy Cheung were part of Chan’s stunt team. And, much like Chan’s protagonists, Shang-Chi uses elements of the surrounding environment to his advantage.

Backed into a corner on a bus? He uses the railings to gain momentum. Outnumbered in a high-rise? He leaps and bounds across the scaffolding to create distance. Liu may not be as fast as Jackie Chan in his prime, but to be fair no one else is, so I won’t pretend that that’s the level Liu needs to surpass to be worthy of the conversation.

You can have the best stunt crew in the world but it don’t mean shit if you don’t know how to shoot action. (Looking at you, Mortal Kombat and Snake Eyes.) DP Bill Pope is the proper eye for the job. This is the guy who shot The Matrix trilogy, for one, and captured the chaotic frenzy of Edgar Wright’s action-movie ambitions. Bill Pope knows how to color coordinate in darkness (Shang-Chi’s shadow fight with Death Dealer – full on Matrix Revolutions vibes), how to move the camera without dipping into shaky cam, how to do slow-mo without over-indulging the effect à la Zack Snyder, and how to alternate the framing so that you know it’s the actors themselves performing the action. I’m surprised it took 25 of these movies to finally bring in Bill Pope; he was the DP behind the freakin’ Spider-Man trilogy!

During the high-rise fight sequence, where Shang-Chi zips across the bamboo scaffolding, the camera swings with him like the Spider-cam in Sam Raimi’s movies. It’s a weightless sensation I hadn’t felt in a superhero movie in a long time.

As much as Shang-Chi solves some of my complaints about the filmmaking of these movies, much of the problems still remain. Marvel’s penchant for artificial environments over tangible ones eventually wins out in the end, and it’s a shame considering the commitment on board.

This is NOT a problem exclusive to Shang-Chi. It’s a matter of how Marvel and Disney prefers to shoot their movies, often trading a practical set or real-life location for a fully CG one to the point that we may as well be watching an animated movie. With live locales, one has to contend with real-world factors like everyday people and their quality of life. (Closing down a street in San Francisco has major repercussions for those on their daily commute.) So on the one hand, VFX is an ideal work around. On the other hand, nothing will ever beat this white-knuckle car chase in The Rock, which is set in San Francisco. Or a better example is Police Story 3 starring Michelle Yeoh, where she’s actually hanging on for dear life atop a speeding vehicle.

The reasoning gets much worse when you delve into it. Stunts and build crews are union-based, whereas computer and visual effects houses are not. (Ooof 😬) This is how Marvel is able to put out three of these movies per year while we only get a Mission Impossible movie every three years.

At the very least, the VFX allows the filmmakers to stage aggressively with the action, particularly in the effects-heavy third act, which is par for the course for the MCU. Shang-Chi may falter striving toward Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but it goes full-on Studio Ghibli and Dragon Ball Z at the end. My brain lit like a fireball from the spectacle, and had me grinning like a kid again who raced home from school to watch Toonami.

“You are a product of all who came before you,” Yeoh’s character says, pointedly. She’s talking about Shang-Chi’s heritage, but she may as well be speaking to the larger Marvel enterprise. My gripes with these movies still linger, but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings presents a unique way forward for the MCU. For a film franchise that has expanded into 40-plus heroes, spread across the reaches of space, and threw every bit of CGI to make this possible, then truly the next frontier for these movies is to do them more practically. (The Matrix did this, and the Mission Impossible franchise is STILL doing this.) I don’t think all of them will, but Shang-Chi at least has the right pieces to push towards that apex.

As an origin story and standalone picture, Shang-Chi is my favorite of the bunch – a crowd-pleaser that alleviates any doubt as to whether Marvel can do a martial arts actioner, one that showcases the stunning commitment of its stars.

8 rings out of 10


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