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Directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stars Simu Liu as the titular master of the martial arts, a young man torn between living a normal life and his past as the son of the fearsome powerful warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung). When his past interrupts everything, Shang-Chi goes on a journey of discovery and reconciliation with his friend Katy (Awkwafina) and reunited sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).
The influences upon Shang-Chi are clear as day and quite lovely to behold. The character found his origin with Marvel Comics wanting to capitalise on the success of television series Kung Fu in the early 1970s, with his appearance based on Bruce Lee. Like Black Panther, the character was made in a time of rampant success for stories about minorities in action settings, and the influences have come full circle with this film.
Jackie Chan began his film career as a stuntman on two of Bruce Lee’s films, carrying an immense respect for him and his craft. That dedicated and professionalism would make up the basis of Chan’s own wildly successful career with Hong Kong action movies of the late 70s and all through the 80s. Chan’s masterful stunt choreography and his paramount stunt team would also include the late Brad Allan as its first Caucasian member. Allan would then go on to be a stunt coordinator in many Hollywood productions, with one of his very last before his untimely death this year being Shang-Chi.
The presence of this character is bonded to the careers of Chinese and Hong Kong action legends, so of course his first movie must reflect this. Allan’s stunt team working with Destin Daniel Cretton as director have created easily the most intelligent and entertaining action sequences in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. It definitely helps that many of the actors performing such sequences are doing as much of it for themselves as possible.
Simu Liu, known mostly for starring in the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience, is making his true screen debut (an extra in Pacific Rim barely counts) and does so with tremendous skill and dedication. Liu brings to Shang-Chi a charm and likeability without it ever being too much. He isn’t a quip machine like Tony Stark or Scott Lang, nor is he a stoic do-gooder presence like Steve Rogers or Carol Danvers. He walks a line of being funny enough to make the film’s comedy feel natural and to also be open enough that we can understand his emotional depth. His smile lights up the room, his eyes capture a specific focus, and his movements have the precision of Jackie Chan. High praise, I know, but completely founded. Not only is he an actor, but Liu is a stuntman, and his experience and willing ability to throw himself all into the complex and body-stretching action choreography gives us that Jackie Chan-level of wonder and entertainment.
One piece of casting caused a mass of excitement amongst fans of Hong Kong cinema outside of the action films. Tony Leung plays “the real Mandarin”, a character armoured with ten arm bands (changed from the traditional finger rings in the comics) of mysterious origin granting immense power and eternal life. Leung brings this instant aura of mystery, danger, calm, sex appeal, and focus that is immeasurable. He can truly speak with his eyes, giving this villainous role an intensity that ranks high in the Marvel canon of great villains, mixed with effective writing to have him be more than a power-hungry warlord. He loves his child but doesn’t know how, thinking that his way of seeing the world and coping with grief is the most efficient way of living. Brutality and pain are the ways of the man in his eyes, what more could there ever be? Leung is measured and committed all the way to a piece of a massive picture, but remains a towering presence and perfect casting.
Awkwafina as Katy gets the films biggest laughs, which makes sense because Nora Lum (real name) is a hilarious performer, but one who is also completely capable of diving into drama with ease. Her casting as Shang-Chi’s purely platonic best friend is inspired, and their relationship is one of the most delightful in the MCU, never burdened with forced romance. Meng’er Zhang is an actress with little experience in front of a camera, mostly being a stage actress, but delivers another fantastic debut performance along with Simu Liu. Her dedication to the martial arts action sequences is tremendous, and setting her character Xialing up to be a major player in the MCU is a brilliant choice. Michelle Yeoh also appears suddenly in the second half, with her character not having the most development, but it’s still Michelle Yeoh so of course she delivers a stellar performance with whatever she’s given.
A major point of praise to Shang-Chi is how, very much like Doctor Strange, it’s able to exist in its own section of the Marvel universe, only minutely connecting to some larger pieces or having a few recognisable characters pop up. The events of the movie, like travelling to a hidden world of magic and wonder, don’t suddenly connect to the magic realms of Doctor Strange or the alien cultures of Guardians of the Galaxy. This is all brand new for the characters and the audiences, and it helps Shang-Chi cut its own distinct section out of a massive web of interconnectivity and canon. It’s one built of incredible and fantastic influence from Chinese mythology, with creatures like the guardian lions or the hundun making appearances that honour thousands of years of culture and art.
Destin Daniel Cretton may not have the most applicable screen credits to a $150 million Marvel movie with crazy martial arts action and CGI dragon fights, but it doesn’t feel wrong. In the past, Marvel Studios have had a few directors come in to just call on-set directions, with the larger narrative of the movie taken away and worked into an in-house system. Films like Thor: The Dark World and Captain Marvel suffered from this indistinguishable execution, but Destin Cretton manages to bring a focus even to something completely out of his wheelhouse. His previous films are sensitive dramas that touch on difficult human subjects, so while the action sequences are shot with precise skill by Bill Pope, he still nails the emotional side of the story. The complex relationships between father Wenwu, son Shang-Chi, daughter Xialing, and passed mother Ying Li (Fala Chen) feel fleshed out detailed, bringing us into difficult situations that enhance the action between any of these characters.
The movie’s main problems boil down to pacing and writing. Destin Cretton brings a touching sentimental nature to the story, enhanced by Joel P. West’s inspired score, but his script work with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham can be touching at best but obvious at worst. Several important themes or lessons to be learned are telegraphed quite obviously within the first 30 minutes, leaving one with dot points to be filled out as to when those elements will come back. At 132 minutes, Shang-Chi packs tons of information, with some of it coming suddenly well after the halfway point. Flashbacks make up a significant portion of the emotional core of the film, but their own length can make the rest of the film feel bloated or uneven. It is never a deal-breaker but it is an obvious factor. Also, Marvel Studios need to move away from the simplistic and neutral colour grade. Embrace colour.
Shang-Chi is, with all of its faults, one of the more enjoyable Marvel Cinematic Universe films upon a second time. At first, the wealth of new information and lore being explored is daunting, with the massive end battle getting more and more insane with creatures you wouldn’t expect to suddenly appear in a martial arts movie. But it works. It has a creativity and ambition to explore new characters and worlds that represents a greater focus from Marvel Studios on unique stories. Instead of only setting up for a new Avengers movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings wants to work on its own merits. It wants to show you the potential of the titular character, of the lush worlds which lie in the depths of the source comics, and the power of fresh perspectives. It achieves these goals with delightful spectacle and plentiful entertainment value.
Also, the mid-credits scene is one of the best in the MCU.
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Writers: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham (story Dave Callaham and Destin Daniel Cretton)
Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Tony Leung
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