Posted on Monday, August 23rd, 2021 by Hoai-Tran Bui
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a mouthful of a title, but with the amount of pressures riding on Marvel’s first Asian-led film, perhaps it needs it. This isn’t an instantly recognizable hero like Captain America, or one loaded with cultural pride like Black Panther. Shang-Chi‘s history is much knottier and more complicated. The character of Shang-Chi emerged out of the ’70s Brucesploitation craze — the phenomenon that followed the death of martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Comic book artist Paul Gulacy even took direct inspiration from Lee, drawing Shang-Chi to look like the martial arts star. But here’s where the knotty part comes in: Shang-Chi was created as a counterpart to Sax Rohmer’s pulp villain Dr. Fu Manchu (yes, that Fu Manchu), enjoying his heyday as the star of ’70s and ’80s martial arts pulp stories before disappearing into the ether.
Shang-Chi was always a strange character to revive as Marvel Studio’s first Asian superhero, but there is admittedly something intriguing about reclaiming a character created out of caricature and cultural stereotypes, and turning it into something empowering. But does Shang-Chi actually achieve this? Not really. But in the interim, it does turn out a mostly decent Marvel movie buoyed by crisp, kinetic action and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best “villain” yet.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does the classic Marvel Studios thing and remixes the more troubling and wilder parts of the character’s history into a palatable crowdpleaser — presenting our Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) as the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of the ancient Ten Rings organization and the “real” Mandarin (a character with his own complicated cultural history) who has been leading his clandestine terrorist group from the shadows for centuries thanks to the mythical “Ten Rings” weapon he carries. Raised as an assassin from childhood, Shang-Chi ran away to the States, where he adopted a new name and life. That’s how we first meet him: as Sean, a sweet San Francisco hotel valet working alongside his best friend Katy (a scene-stealing Awkwafina), happy in their arrested development, even as their friends scoff at their low ambitions. But that all changes when Shang-Chi is attacked on a bus by a group of assassins sent by his father, and he’s forced to reveal his sick martial arts skills that he’s had along — thus accepting his destiny as our Chosen One of the week.
As familiar of a superhero origin story as Shang-Chi is, the film blessedly feels like the least Marvel of the solo films we’ve had lately. This is thanks to director Destin Daniel Cretton‘s decision to drive the film by its strong character dynamics, both in the comedic double act that is Liu and Awkwafina’s “two idiots” routine, and the complicated family relationship between Wenwu and his estranged children Shang-Chi and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang, an imposing physical presence in her first feature film role). Liu and Awkwafina, both coming from the comedy scene, thrive in the first half’s “fish out of water” narrative, with Liu playing the bewildered everyman well to Awkwafina’s overly enthusiastic tourist. Awkwafina, in particular, shows her skills by smoothly juggling the film’s best comedy moments with a few scenes of real gravity. The cast manages to carry a strong sense of tongue-in-cheek humor throughout the film, with one later surprise character hailing straight from the Taika Waititi school of comedy.
But while Liu’s stuntman chops are on display in the exhilarating fight scenes choreographed by the supervising stunt coordinator Brad Allan (an elite member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team who sadly passed shortly after making this film), the star’s chance to prove his leading-man charisma is completely eclipsed by Leung, who effortlessly proves he’s one of our greatest screen actors of the past 40 years with a simple roll-up of his shirtsleeves. Cretton seems to be keenly aware that he has an international superstar on his payroll and makes total use of it, treating us to many a close-up of Leung’s face on the verge of tears, emotions roiling underneath the surface in that beautifully subtle, evocative way that the Hong Kong actor has perfected over the years.
It’s to Shang-Chi‘s benefit that the film essentially has two leads, really. Leung’s Wenwu is presented as more of a tragic antihero than as a full-fledged villain, with his doomed romance with Shang-Chi’s mysterious mother Jiang Li (Fala Chen) and his subsequent near-redemption given as much screen time as Shang-Chi’s journey of self-discovery. And Leung, one of our best cinematic romantic leads and devastatingly handsome to boot, manages to inject sex appeal into a Marvel film with merely a look. Liu might be accomplished at playing the comedic everyman, but is less gifted at carrying the film’s dramatic scenes, struggling to match the talents of Leung, or even Awkwafina, and portrays most of Shang-Chi’s internal struggles with the same pained look.
But as a hero whose superpowers are his badass martial arts skills, Liu more than excels at the job. Shang-Chi‘s fight scenes are breathtaking — whether in the bruising street-fighting scenes when Shang-Chi is dodging magical steel blades on (and outside of) a bus, or when the film goes full wuxia in scenes with Leung and Michelle Yeoh. But while Shang-Chi does manage to escape the shadow of Bruce Lee (mostly by shedding the ’70s martial-arts exploitation genre entirely, which feels like a missed opportunity), it still only manages pale imitations of its influences: the wuxia-inspired sequences feeling more weightless than anything out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the Jackie Chan-inspired fight scenes feel more like the Hollywood takes on Chan’s work — albeit one of the better Hollywood versions that actually lets the action play out onscreen instead of being edited to high hell. And Liu, as a skilled physical performer who trained hard for the role, has the physicality to pull it all off.
It almost feels cheap to criticize Shang-Chi for its dull visuals — we know at this point that the MCU “house style” flattens out even the most visually distinctive of directors, until all the films share the same muted gray color palette. Cretton has never been particularly renowned for his visual flair, coming from the character drama indie world, but manages to at least keep the film visually coherent (and in many of the wuxia-inspired moments, quite beautiful) even as it descends into CGI bombast. And though it falls victim to the dreaded Marvel third-act CGI muddle, Shang-Chi‘s is one of the more forgivable ones, if only because it verges on full fantasia.
As Marvel remixes go, Shang-Chi is one of the more successful ones. Maybe not as stylistically strong as Black Widow and certainly not as much of a watershed moment as Black Panther, it is elevated by the strength of its hard-hitting fight scenes and the supporting performers — especially the Tony Leung of it all.
/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10
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