Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ***1/2
One Liner Review:
A wild ride of a fantasy-adventure movie, complete with great martial arts set pieces and some fantastic creatures.
A very good movie, this one has fantastic martial action in the first half, and then all kinds of cool imaginative and fantastical ideas in the second half. It also has a story that keeps the surprises rolling, including which locations it will end up in. Simu Lu is the real deal as Shang Chi, a character who has real down-to-earth personality, and yet also finds plenty of opportunities to be funny. He’s not the only one. Akwafina is on hand cranking out the jokes in the first half and then Ben Kingsley dominates the comic relief in the second half. By dividing itself into halves, both in terms of action content, and who the humor is coming from, the movie keeps things fresh at all times, and keeps changing things up to ensure that it stays that way.
Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a very entertaining movie. It’s Marvel taking a chance once again, trying something different, and seeing how far they can extend their reach. Many are starting to feel at this point (after about twenty-five movies, all major successes,) that Marvel just does the same thing again and again. That these movies are formulaic. But other then building up to a major, action-packed and exciting climax, (like any good action movie should do,) these movies actually have little in common. Sure, some characters feel familiar from time to time, (Doctor Strange’s story origin story has similarities to Iron Man’s,) but for the most part each story is its own thing. And while Black Widow came under lots of criticism, that was only partially deserved, Shang Chi is the movie to prove that Marvel still knows what it’s doing. This movie is very different than those other Marvel films, and is completely unpredictable. It has wild bursts of imagination and takes chances in ways that only this studio could (let’s not forget this is the studio that gave us a talking tree and talking raccoon as major characters of Guardians of the Galaxy.)
Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings is Marvel’s foray into Hong Kong action cinema. Here’s a genre that has some of the most amazing movies, both in terms of action and in terms of beauty. Just look at the color palettes used in movies like Hero and The House of Flying Daggers. Look at the action choreography in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Shang-Chi only partially taps into all that. It is really featured only in the first half. But that’s enough. Small steps. The sequel will hopefully do even more. For now, we finally got a Hollywood superhero movie that is willing to go into these areas and open the door to start exploring them.
This movie tells the story of a man named Shaun (Shang-Chi’s name for when he is in hiding,) who lives in San Francisco as a valet driver, spending every waking minute hanging out with his best friend, Katy (Akwafina.) Before we see all that, however, the movie opens with some Lord of the Rings style voice over and big battle moments. We learn of Wenwu, (Tony Leung,) the man who has been a warlord and leader in China for centuries, due to his ten ring weapons. These are bracelets, (not actual rings on fingers, like in the comics,) that he wears with five one each of his arms. And he uses the rings to create all sorts of blue forces that can rip through anything. At one point, Wenwu rides a horse into battle against an enemy, using the rings to create a forcefield over his head which protects him from the enemies arrows that are raining down upon him.
The backstory and flashback introduction continues to show Wenwu speaking to his men about a hidden village called Ta Lo, and demanding that they go there, and try to find it. We then see Wenwu riding in a car with his men, bursting through a forest where the trees actually start moving all around them at rapid speed. The car is thrown over a cliff, but Wenwu manages to save himself. He then comes upon a beautiful woman dresses in lavish colors (this is the only sequence in the movie that matches the colors of those previously mentioned Hong Kong movies,) and Wenwu and the woman process to fights. Only it’s a glorious, artistic, slow motion fight, involving flying and powers, and deflecting items that are thrown at each other, while they are in the air. Wenwu controls the rings, which he can launch at someone, but this woman controls the leaves all around them. It’s an impressive and artistic fight, but definitely more about the beauty than about the choreography. That’s okay, we will get plenty of choreography-based fights coming up.
The point of the flashback sequence is to establish this magical village, Ta Lo, which exists in another realm than earth, and also to fill in the story of Wenwu, and explain how and why he gave up the ten rings. He fell in love with this woman, brought her back to this compound, locked his rings away, and started a life. Together they had two children, Shang-Chi, and his sister, Xialing. And for a while, things were peaceful. It was only after the mom died that Wenwu took the rings back up and Shang-Chi ran away to go into hiding in San Francisco and take on the name Shaun. And that’s where we meet him when his story begins. Shaun and Katy talk up the life of being a valet driver to Katy’s family, to their friend from highs school and her husband, and to each other. They live a life of taking it easy during the day and partying at night, going out to karaoke bars until they fall asleep. And then suddenly fate catches up with them.
It happens one morning, while they are on their way to work, riding a bus. Some men approach Shaun, asking him to hand over his pendant, a green medallion which hangs around his neck. Katy tries to step in, and is pushed aside by one of the men. That sets Shaun off. He lets loose and goes at it on these guys, proceeding to do all sorts of martial arts moves that would make Jackie Chan want to take notes. The truth is, this movie used Jackie Chan’s long time choreographer to help with the fights, and it shows. Especially in a moment where Shaun uses a jacket to fight. But the actor who plays Shaun, Simu Liu, really does the stunts himself, and they look fantastic. Apparently this actor, like Tom Holland with Spider Man, won the part of Shang-Chi partially because he could really do flips and stunts. And once again, Marvel proved to continue its great track record with casting. The guy is a natural talent, not just physically, but also with the way he handles humor and dialogue. And the bus scene, which is his first action moment, is just fantastic. In fact, it is the best action scene in the entire movie. Shaun bounces off the sides of the bus, swings through poles, and at one point even gets on the roof. The setting is used in every way possible, including a moment where the camera goes outside the bus, showing us the action through the windows. Then it starts tracking past the side of the bus, movie slowly throughout the bus, (which is one of those two busses in one, gigantic bus situations,) showing us the different areas of it, and everything going on inside. Talk about a great moment.
After Shaun and Katy get off the bus and back to his apartment, Shaun tells her the truth about his life. He tells her about his father and his need to go to Macau, China, to find his sister. Katy insists on going with him, and it’s while in the plane that Shaun tells her even more, including the fact that his real name is Shang-Chi. And the movie takes its time with all of this. It takes time with Katy learning how to say his name and it takes time with her joking about how close his real name is to Shaun. This is Akwafina comedy, and she’s pretty good at it. It’s not that she’s hilarious, or anything like that, but she’s fun and helps establish a light-hearted tone in the moments when you need the movie to feel that way. We get just the right amount of Akwafina comedy in this movie, and they do something very smart in replacing the comedic character for the second half. In the first half, it’s Akwafina telling the jokes all day long. And then in the second half, she takes a back seat and becomes a little more serious, but the comedy does continue. The torch is taken up by none other than Trevor Slattery, (Ben Kingsley,) reprising his role from Iron Man 3. Talk about a great connection and Easter Egg. One might have expected Kingsley to reprise his role as the “fake Mandarin,” in a post credits scene, making a quick cameo, but Marvel had better ideas. This movie features the character in a solid half of the movie, giving us answers to every question about how he connects to the real Mandarin, that we might have been wondering. This is what Marvel does best… connecting their movies together in a way that really rewards the fans.
After leaving America, Shang-Chi (now going by his real name,) and Katy show up in Macau. They find Xialing’s underground fighting club and Shang-Chi is made to fight. People recognize him as the “bus boy,” after a you tuber recorded his bus fight (the moment when the You Tuber talks about grading the fight is hilarious,) and posted it on the internet. Now we get a cameo by Wong and the Abomination fighting (again, great Easter Egg connections from Marvel,) and then Shang ends up being thown into a ring. But his fight doesn’t get very far before the club is attacked by his father’s men. And this leads to the second great action sequence in the movie. It’s a fight that is set outside of the building on the bamboo scaffolding. And sure, we have seen this kind of fight before, (most notably in Rush Hour 2, with another night time bamboo scaffolding outside of a building fight,) but this still looks fantastic. And they even find a way to get in another tracking shot that explores multiple levels of the scaffolding, as Shang-Chi moves gracefully from level to the next, fighting off all enemies who come across his path.
The sequence ends with Shang-Chi, Katy, and Xialing being brought to Wenwu’s compound, where their father makes his case for wanting them back. He shows them a room where water comes out of the walls and forms a maze in mid air. And he tells them about the voice of their mother which has been calling to him from behind a gate in her former village, Ta Lo. He tells his children that their mother is being held captive there, and that he has to go and rescue her, even if it means destroying the whole village. Both Shang-Chi and his sister are not on board. They think the voice their father is hearing is just in his head, and that he can’t go and destroy a village because of it. For their insubordinance, Wenwu locks them in his dungeon. Only the group finds Slattery there, as well as a strange winged pillow creature from Ta Lo. The group, which also includes Katy, escapes, steals the car of Razor Fist (a very cool henchman, in the tradition of James Bond – over the top characters,) and heads to Ta Lo themselves.
The final sequences of the movie take place in Ta Lo. This is where the big battle happens. And this is where the movie proves just how unpredictable it is. Let’s just say there are creatures that come into play here. Giant, mystical creatures. And the movie becomes very much a fantasy, which is a welcome surprise. Most Marvel movies exist in the genre of sci-fi. The fact that this one goes all epic and fantastical makes it something special. And sure, trading in hand-to-hand combat for CGI creatures feels like a step in the wrong direction to some extent, another way of looking at it is that this movie does it all. The first half is the hand-to-hand combat half and the second half is the creature spectacle. Say what you want about the movie’s climax, which doesn’t just features these giant beasts, but also has Shang-Chi fighting his father with the ten rings, but you have to admit it goes all out, trying to be as big and ambitious as it can. The movie as a whole has a ton going for it. The action is generally pretty great. The story, which has the characters move to all different locations, is solid. You expect Shang-Chi to come back to his father’s compound and face off against Wenwu. But you don’t expect them to go back to Ta Lo, and everything that happens there. Even Wenwu’s story is somewhat tragic and fascinating. This is fun, packed, creative, and pretty incredible movie.