Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)


Although I have watched them all and enjoy quite a few I have had a major complain about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  That complaint is that so many of them are the same, particularly when a new character is added.  Even if we are far down the road in narrative at some point we have to hold off getting to the part where the Avengers fight a universe-swallowing bad guy in order to show how some kid was bitten by a magical wombat and discovered how to be a truly good and unselfish person by beating a cosmic villain that pops up, does some naughty things, and is sent packing to another dimension in the last 20 minutes of the movie. 

With Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings Marvel, and by extension Disney, does something I could not have believed they would do, especially after watching the bland bundle of video game cut scenes that Black Widow turned out to be.  It takes chances at not being strictly a superhero film, and takes even more chances by not kissing the ring of the Communist Party of China.  I don't think the latter was intended, as I'm sure casting a number of Asian-American (and known Hong Kong actors) into the main roles had them thinking that they would easily conquer the box office in North America and Asia.  While they lost out on the lucrative Chinese market, they were definitely correct on the United States, as Shang-Chi became one of the highest-grossing post-COVID shutdown movies.

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is the son of an immortal warrior (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) and a woman named Ying-Nan (Michelle Yeoh), who was originally from the mythical land of Ta Lo.  However, as an adult, he finds himself working as a valet with his high school friend Katy (Awkwafina) in Los Angeles.  This changes when he is attacked by a group of men, led by a man named Razor Fist (Florian Monteanu), who has a modified machete for an arm, on a public bus.  After fighting the attackers he admits to Katy who he really is and where he came from.

Concerned about a postcard from his sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) Shang-Chi and Katy fly to Macau to make sure she is okay.  Their father attacks her underground fighting ring and reveals to them why he has reappeared after all this time: he believes their mother's spirit is being held captive behind a magical gate in Ta Lo and that he must go there to save her.  Shang-Chi, Xialin and Katy, along with Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), the actor who once was the public face of the Mandarin during a series of terrorist attacks and for that has been held as a prisoner, must travel to Ta Lo to warn the villagers and stop their father from breaching the gate.

While there are a number of scenes that are typical of the wuxia movie genre Shang-Chi doesn't rely solely on martial arts, although Shang-Chi's training and his sister's self-training are a major part of their identity.  The fight on the bus as well as one-on-one fights between Ying-Nan and her groom-to-be as well as Shang-Chi's final fight with his father are all well-done and, to director Destin Daniel Cretton's credit, filmed more in the Hong Kong fashion than the Hollywood style.  That allows us to see the action.  The fight on the bus, although it adds a typical Marvel henchman, is the perfect example of the confined fights of many of the '80s and '90s films that came out before Hong Kong reverted back to China.  

Where I really felt that the movie broke free of the Marvel formula is that, although there is the need once again to save the world, Shang-Chi was not afraid to go into full fantasy mode.  Ta Lo, despite being depicted as kind of a traditional Asian village surrounded by creatures such as guardian lions and nine-tailed foxes, is described by Shang-Chi's aunt Nan (also played by Yeoh) as being more than just one little village.  It is an entire world of advanced cities that once was ravaged by a creature they call the Dweller in the Darkness, which was only defeated with the aid of a dragon.  Although I think some of the soul stealers look like the rubbery effects that are too often seen in these films I can definitely say all the other creatures are well done.  I especially like the lions, particularly when one of the bad guys hits one with their taser staff and the creature just looks annoyed and sends the man flying.  

David Callahan and Andrew Lanham, who cowrote the script with Cretton, also wisely know to deliver on promises.  Village full of legendary creatures?  You get legendary creatures doing things one would expect real animals to do.  Dragon?  You bet there's going to be a dragon, and the thing is beautiful.  Lovecraftian horror?  Definitely going to get that as well.  Not to mention the Ten Rings, which are powerful artifacts that the warrior has used to prolong his life and conquer nations over thousands of years.  There are many ways that they work and we see them.  We also get to see the emotional toll that their use and his long life has brought, especially after he expected to grow old with Ying-Nan and his children. 

This combination of science fiction and dark fantasy works much better this time than it did in any of the Thor films, largely because it isn't tripping over itself to explain everything.  Though there are some tie-ins with Doctor Strange it tends to work better than that movie as well simply because, although we get an origin for Shang-Chi, it is not a superhero origin story.  Doctor Strange was one of the worst examples of the type of Marvel movie I mentioned at the beginning, and for all the threat they tried to make of Kaecilius, for all it mattered he could have just been some strange soul-devouring monster.  

I did not think that anything new could be injected into this series, so Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings left me quite happy.  Even the humor works, which is something that can rarely be said about any of these films.  I also don't mind Awkwafina, but maybe it's because I'm not familiar with everything else she has been in - most of them being television shows I normally wouldn't watch - or the reasons that I'm supposed to hate her.  She has a pretty much unforced character ark in here, and she and Simu Liu have a chemistry where one could believe they have been friends for a decade or more.  Liu of course is great, and I remarked afterward that I had never seen Tony Leung in an English-speaking role.  There was good reason, since this is, surprisingly, his first.  As a fan of movies like Hard Boiled and The Killers I was always surprised that Leung hadn't had the same international success as Chow Yun-Fat. 

This is a fun, refreshing entry, and gives me hope that Phase 4 of the MCU is not going to just be a bunch of finger-wagging politics and sad compromises to get around PROC censorship.  Then again, this and the upcoming Spider-Man movies may end up being the only bright spots (besides the television shows) this time around.  I am hoping that we get more of this going forward.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Time: 132 minutes
Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Meng'er Zhang, Michele Yeoh, Florian Monteanu
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton





 

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