Film Review-Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

This image released by Marvel Studios shows Tony Leung, left, and Fala Chen in a scene from “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”

After 13 years and 23 movies, it’s difficult to be surprised by a Marvel Studios production. This year alone, we will have been treated to “Black Widow,” a spy flick starring one of the Avengers’ veteran cast members, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” a martial arts action fantasy, and “Eternals,” a magical team-up movie starring a beefed-up Kumail Nanjiani. I’m still not sure what that movie is supposed to be.

Even in a year where theater attendance has been scant and a global pandemic rages through its fourth wave, Disney/Marvel manages to push out three projects featuring relatively obscure comic book characters, in the hopes of recouping hundreds of millions of dollars in profit. Luckily for them, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” packs a wallop with bright, colorful set-pieces, impressive martial arts choreography and memorable characters.

This adventure finds the hero Shaun/Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) hiding as a valet parking assistant in San Francisco with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). Life is no-frills and no-thrills for the two underachievers until Shang’s deadly father Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) sends a gang of assassins to bring him back to his homeland in China to help free the haunted spirit of Shang’s mother. With the help of his estranged cage-fighting sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), they must escape the pursuit of their vengeful father to a magic village that protects the world from a dark force that’s trying to escape.

As far as origin stories go, this one does a great job at setting up the characters’ personal stakes in the drama. Liu presents Shang-Chi as affable, charming and believably heroic when the plot kicks into gear. It’s primarily through his interactions with Awkwafina, Leung and later Michelle Yeoh as his aunt Ying Nan that Shang takes shape within the negative space of their clearer portrayals. But like many martial arts protagonists, his inner struggles come through in his physicality and his fight profile.

Stylistically, director Destin Daniel Cretton integrates shades of Asian blockbuster tropes. Sequences, such as a seat-clenching hand-to-hand fight on a barreling bus and a tense battle on the side of a neon-lit skyscraper, combine the scope of Hollywood genre superhero bombast with the purposeful camera placement and imagination of Hong Kong action cinema. Later scenes that take place within the fantasy realms of the story recall the high-flying “wire-fu” of “Hero” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

The project only loses confidence in this hybrid style once the momentum reaches the climax and video game-esque creatures and flying CGI monsters fill the entire frame for what feels like 25 minutes, undercutting the preceding character-oriented fights.

On a story level, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s the first time in a good while wherein a superhero film feels free enough with the source material to try new things and have fun with its premise. The chemistry within the cast sells the big action and the pulpy source material, and there are even a few sequences that rank among the most impressively shot within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Grade: B+

Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.