‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ Movie Review
Disclaimer: Advance screening hosted by IMAX. Shang-Chi releases on September 3rd, 2021.
After its announcement at San Diego Comic-Con in 2019, the excitement surrounding Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was radiant. Marvel had finally begun producing a Chinese-led film, and the mostly-unknown comic book character had the potential to change the course of the MCU. Director Destin Daniel Cretton was announced to be at the helm with Simu Liu tapped to star as Shang-Chi himself. However, as the release date loomed large and buzz began to die down due to weak trailers (in addition to the release of five other individual Marvel projects), it begged the question: are Marvel movies growing tired and bland?
Well, yes and no. While fans are certainly suffering from over-saturation, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is far from boring. In terms of structure, it does feel eerily similar to Black Widow, following the same general layout. The formula Marvel created for its solo origin stories has begun to show its age, and it just doesn’t have the impact it did ten years ago. The film follows the titular character, now living as Shaun in San Francisco. Eventually, his past catches up to him and he’s forced to travel back to China to confront the family he ran away from. Again, this sounds like nothing special, and that’s because it isn’t.
Where Shang-Chi sets itself apart is in its execution. It’s one of the darker Marvel entries, and at its best, the film is examining the importance of respecting that from whence you came through the lens of a family broken by loss. Cretton dissects the notion that guilt and regret are inescapable; a sentiment perpetuated by Tony Leung’s tragic performance of the misled antagonist Wenwu.
Another triumph of Shang-Chi is that it features some of the most natural and life-like dialogue showcased in a movie since Knives Out. From awkward silence at the dinner table to natural banter between friends on the bus, these people have real personalities, which unsurprisingly goes a long way in a character-driven narrative. As I mentioned earlier, Leung truly is a standout and shows precisely why he’s one of Hong Kong’s most revered actors. That’s not to say that his is the only strong performance; on the contrary, Simu Liu breathes life into Shang-Chi and poetically portrays the desire to live a normal life despite his conflicted past. Awkwafina, while mostly wasted on comic relief, has a chance to show off her acting chops as well. It’s also worth mentioning that the movie briefly delves into the difference in the experiences of those born in China and Chinese-Americans, even subtly touching on each group’s connection to the culture and spirituality as a whole. I can’t speak to the validity of the depiction, but it was handled in a way that brought both levity and depth to the film.
The conclusion of the first act sees our heroes on a new venture: to find a village lost to time. At this point, the dark family drama evolves into a culturally-driven chase film. After the second act, the tone shifts again, the film stops to rest, and the previously rapid-fire story begins to drag; a result of the decision to explore the lore and history of the characters. The script rushes through droves of well-delivered exposition and still somehow manages to feel slow. By going in this direction during the “calm before the storm” of the final act, the principle of “Chekhov’s Gun” is in full effect, leading to an all-too-predictable finale. Although this was likely a necessary choice to provide a more impactful closure to the film’s themes, it hampers the enjoyment of the last hour, not to mention the final act’s sub-par visuals. The admittedly ambitious battle sequence was poorly green-screened and dark, which broke the immersion of the otherwise well-developed world.
Like the film itself, I’ll avoid ending on a negative note. There isn’t much to say regarding the music and action in Shang-Chi other than that they are nothing short of phenomenal, both going hand-in-hand to create stunning hand-to-hand fight sequences. The stunt choreography is sharp and fast, drawing from and referencing classic Jackie Chan films. If Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the previous gold standard for superhero combat, Shang Chi takes it to new heights. The sheer entertainment derived from these scenes makes it far easier to forgive some of the aforementioned glaring issues. The killer soundtrack features a string of Asian-inspired hip-hop tracks that contribute to the rhythmic elegance of the combat (and will soon be making an appearance on my gym playlist). As much as I criticized the film, it was an absolute blast as a whole, and a worthy way to introduce more diversity into the MCU.