Premise: Shang-Chi, the master of unarmed weaponry based Kung Fu, is forced to confront his past after being drawn into the Ten Rings organization.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings brings the MCU’s first Asian superhero to the screen in a film that dazzles with elaborate set pieces and an energetic buddy energy between leads Simu Liu and Awkwafina. With impressive visual effects in its third act, Shang-Chi is certainly one of the MCU’s best looking films to date (outside of the colorful and vibrate Guardians of the Galaxy films). But even with fantastic action and visual effects, the film suffers a bit from origin story issues and, specifically, its handling of important exposition through inconsistent and repetitive flashbacks.
Shang-Chi begins with a great introduction to the lore and history of the Ten Rings via voiceover from Shang-Chi’s mother Jiang Li (Fala Chen). This overview is succinct and not only establishes Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu (played by the legendary Tony Leung), but provides the important background of Wenwu and Jiang Li’s meeting. As dazzling and beautifully choreographed as this meet-cute flashback is, the rest of the film is severely hampered by numerous flashbacks to Shang-Chi’s upbringing under the tutelage of his father and the Ten Rings organization. Oftentimes, these flashbacks purposely conceal certain details only to half-heartedly flesh them out in later flashbacks that ultimately feel more like the film is just repeating itself rather than divulging new details in the plot.
Despite these storytelling faux pas, the choreography of the fight scenes and the way the martial arts are filmed in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the film’s biggest and most spectacular strength. The film’s expert utilization of slow motion at key moments in the choreography is impressive. The highly marketed bus fight sequence is a joy to watch, even though it’s somewhat reminiscent of a similar sequence in Captain Marvel. What makes it unique is the way it turns the origin story narrative on its ear and side-steps a tired and trope-ish “destined for greatness” narrative in favor of a “hidden identity” storyline.
Lead actor Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience) does well in his first starring film role as Shang-Chi. Even when saddled with the occasional sloppy expository dialogue, he often finds the right balance between super hero magnetism and dramatic aloofness. As the character struggles with the personal implications of the many turns of the plot, he can dish out the fun energy necessitated by Awkwafina’s Katy and other comic relief characters along the way.
Shang-Chi‘s secret life made public narrative device shifts the “fish out of water” story over to his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), who tags along for the adventure to save Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). The story, of course, branches significantly from that establishing journey into a personal story of family, grief, and misguided motivations that’s complemented well with Awkwafina’s “whoa, this is crazy” comic relief performance. Although the film does ultimately give her more than the character needs to do in the third act, Awkwafina’s performance is a fun reprieve from the seriousness of the greater Shang-Chi plot.
Legendary Hong Kong actor Tony Leung makes his American film debut as Wenwu/The Mandarin in Shang-Chi. His performance is filled with pathos and conflict as the character proves to be a formidable opponent to his son. The way the film uses the power of the Ten Rings themselves (5 rings adorn each of Wenwu’s fore and upper arms) showcases an impressive amount of power and visual effects without skimping on eye catching martial arts choreography.
At the end of the day, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a remarkably fresh superhero origin story given its placement as the 25th film in the bigger universe that is the MCU. While it does include fun references to the greater MCU, along with some requisite cameos along the way, Shang-Chi is smartly drawn as its own entity and standalone film with the hope of a solo franchise. Given this impressive introduction, hopefully there is more of Shang-Chi to come.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens only in theaters September 3rd.
Check out Ben’s review of Shang-Chi here.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.
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