Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

5 out of 5

Directed by: Deston Daniel Cretton

Contrary to that rating, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not a perfect movie. We’re so deep in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe at this point that these things have made their own version of blockbuster-movie language, meaning ratings get a little asterisk – as in *as compared to other Marvel movies.

However, the can work both positively and negatively, since it sorta kinda means two metrics – are you a good movie? Are you a good Marvel movie? – instead of just one. When it’s positive, though, I’m happy to round up: because Shang Chi is, first and foremost, an absolutely solid, absorbing piece of popcorn movie making magic, and then is also one of the best Marvel movies to date, both structurally – heroes, villains, story – and technically, with all the behind-camera stuff syncing like it hasn’t since, I dunno, Guardians of the Galaxy.

Shang-Chi is, to start, Shaun (Simu Liu), who’s doing the aimless young adult shtick in San Francisco with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), happy to laugh off talks from friends and Katy’s family regarding needs for either to find some more stable work – they’re good with parking cars, and singing drunken karaoke. And then when they’re on a bus, they’re attacked by a dude with a giant blade for a hand (Razor Fist – Florian Munteanu) and a whole bunch of martial arts associates from an organization called The Ten Rings. They want a pendant Shaun wears, and after a beat were Katy explains they surely must be after the wrong guy, Shaun turns on his heretofore-unknown-to-Katy fighting skills and chops and kicks and badasses his way though an amazingly choregraphed shuffle that sees the bus sliced in half and Shaun punching baddies through windows.

Ten Rings? Pendants? We actually get some setup prior to this, and it put me in a positive mindset rightaway: the first ten minutes of the movie, dedicated to this setup, are all in Mandarin, with subtitles. While that should seem minor, it stands in stark comparison to the debacle of Black Widow, which assumed its audiences couldn’t read and would want bad pretend accents and Russian stereotypes instead. It’s also something that’s consistently maintained even past this intro: when it makes sense, characters speak in Mandarin; when there’s an English speaker present, it’s English as a favor to them. Again, we have two standards here – Marvel and movie – and this intro sequence rates as highly on the second as well as the first, because it’s an entertainingly shot and told fairy about Shaun’s father, the nigh-immortal Wenwu (Tony Leung), who’s discovery of a mystical set of bangles (y’know, ten of ’em, ring-shaped things) allowed for his longlife and warlike conquering of various lands, eventually leading to his hunt for a rumored magical village called Ta Lo. There, he’s confronted by guardian Ying Li (Fala Chen), with whom Wenwu has yet another excellent choreographed fight, this time informed by Tai Chi and the mash-up of Wenwu’s ring power against Li’s use of winds and a lot of classical-looking wirework, and also brilliantly and succinctly shows the characters essentially flirting with one another (wordlessly) during the scuffle.

Bing bang boom – in technical terms – and the two fall in love and have two kids, one of which is Shang-Chi, but cannot live in Ta Lo because of Wenwu’s past; both husband and wife give up their powers to raise their kids normally. Wenwu’s historical crimes eventually take their toll, though, on an evening when Li is home alone. She takes on a mess of mobsters, but cannot compete; Wenwu returns home to the body of his wife. He picks back up the rings, and the training of Shang-Chi as a warrior – to assist with his revenge – begins. Tasked with his first kill at the age of 14, Shang runs away from home and to San Fran.

…To eventually tell all of this to Katy in the present, post their bus fight, and to explain to her why he now has to hurry to China to find his sister, and find out why his father sent his Ten Rings to steal his pendant, with his sister having a matching version of it. Katy, in tried and true sidekick fashion, declares she’s coming along. Cue the subsequent 2-hour long battle against Wenwu, and the fight over Ta Lo.

In the same Black Widow review, I questioned whether or not directors without action in their resume are suited to these large MCU projects, but throwing that question out the window is how clearly director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton puts a distinctive stamp on Shang-Chi, as well as how seamlessly all aspects of the flick – comedy, action, drama beats – fit together. I’m in a similar position with Cretton as I was with Widow’s Cate Shortland – I’ve not seen his other movies, but a wiki check-in suggests I wouldn’t have jumped to him as a director of a 150+ million dollar superhero flick. And while I’d wholly believe if someone told me that this movie doesn’t look or feel exactly like his others, it also is not a faceless Marvel movie. It has its own identity. I mentioned Corrider Crew VFX Artists React videos in the Black Widow review, and coincidentally I’ll bring them up again, as they did a Stuntmen React to Shang-Chi specifically, and they had some of the action coordinators speaking about the process. From that video, it’s clearer that these large scale movies are very much a team effort, and it’s only by embracing those teams, and working with them, that you can best incorporate all the large-scale stuff – effects, stunts – into your movie. I can certainly only speculate, and maybe possibly Cretton did just give up creative control to be by Marvel committee, but my guess is that he did work with these teams, expressing what he wanted and getting involved as part of the team where and when it made sense, leading to a movie that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and tells a cohesive story in all of those team-built moments. I haven’t been swept up by a Marvel flick by this since Phase 1; even when things are clearly CG (and maybe not always perfect), because of how they’re incorporated into the scene, they work, and because the fight sequences are “told” in a visually clear manner that’s consistent with the movie’s language, and always, always move the story along with their inclusion, there’s not a single moment I wanted to look away, or had a “get on with it” reaction. Everything lands.

The casting in this regard is uniformly excellent. Liu is so charming, and pulls off the haunted-past hero bit perfectly, while also bringing legitimacy to his fisticuffs. Awkwafina also surprised, both in how she was directed and her acting. I’ve already been surprised by my love for Awkwafina with her Comedy Central series (her act prior to that not being my bag), but I know that on paper, her character is really just the funny sidekick, and while she definitely hits all of her beats in that regard, she doesn’t overdo it – she gets to be human, and competent, which helps maintain immersion when she, like, jumps in to drive the careening bus while it’s getting chopped in half, or doesn’t immediately freak out when having to escape the Ten Rings down the exterior scaffolding of a giant skyscraper. Leung’s Wenwu is all villainous restraint, allowing him to hop the line back and forth between being a sympathetic character and an antagonist, and Shang’s sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) similarly to Liu brings not only believability to her role, but also makes sure that the well-interwoven subplot about how she was overlooked in favor of the male child doesn’t just feel like an afterthought; her presence demands that this subplot also remain throughout the movie and has resolution. Also, just to get my kicks in against Black Widow, it’s the perfect counterpoint to the by-the-books, generic bickering banter of Scarlet Johanssen and Florence Pugh in that movie – Shang’s / Xu’s complicated backstory and their present day difficulties all arrive fully intact on screen, no eye-rolling banter required.

As mentioned eons and paragraphs ago, there are things I could point at here that actually miss the mark on perfection – that the bad guy’s initial plotting doesn’t make much sense (i.e. “I sent people to kill you because I knew they wouldn’t be able to”); that there’re some softball Disney sensibilities in here that just confuses things unnecessarily – like we can’t openly talk about Shang’s mother being murdered, I guess; the requisite MCU connections are fun but probably could’ve been cut to keep the movie to two hours; and that our training montage helps to cover up that Awkwafina learns to precisely shoot a bow and arrow in, like, ten minutes (though this gets cutely lampshaded, at least) – but none of this mattered to me while watching. 132 minutes, hooked. Phase 4 interests ignited. Desire to see more of Simu, more of Awkwafina, more of Meng’er.

It’s really a great blockbuster, and it’s an excellent Marvel flick.