Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 1st, 2021
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy) marks the latest director of humble indie origins to take on a Marvel superhero, following the likes of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel), Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), and others making the jump to the big time. Here, he tackles Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, recounting how the titular hero reclaims ancestral power and discovers his true calling, all the while battling the forces that would hold him back. You know the drill: we’ve seen this kind of origin story many times before. That makes it no less entertaining, however, and there are plenty of fresh twists added on to give the film a life of its own. Plus, the fight choreography is quite something, at least until a visually incoherent finale that undoes some of the viewer goodwill earned earlier. Still, strong performances and a decent script (however predictable) deliver a fine new entry into the superhero pantheon.
When first we meet Shang-Chi (Simu Liu, Women Is Losers), he is in San Francisco. living as “Shaun” and working as a parking valet with best friend Katy (Awkwafina, The Farewell). Everyone, especially Katy’s family (Shaun lives alone), assumes that they either are dating, or should date, though they claim their relationship is purely platonic. They’ve known each other since high school, and though they have college degrees are happy enough doing what they’re doing. Until, that is, a man with a laser sword for an arm attacks Shaun on a city bus, angling for the pendant Shaun’s mother gave him, and Katy watches in shock and awe as her bestie gives his attacker and his gang quite the beating. When did he learn to do that? Cretton, in turn, gives us quite the spectacle, the sequence a joy ride of thrilling action.
But who are these fearsome villains? Therein lies the mystery of the narrative, but it would not be giving too much away to say that the movie’s prologue sets the plot in motion. There, we learn how eons ago, Wenwu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, The Grandmaster), an ambitious warrior, gained control of the mystical “Ten Rings” and seized their magic for his own advancement (and immortality). He used them to create a shadow terrorist organization that helped him shape the course of global events. And then, one day, Wenwu finally discovered the lost realm of Ta Lo, which he believed held secrets to give him even more power. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get past the guardian of the gate, a young woman named Li (Fala Chen, Tales from the Dark 2). Unaccustomed to defeat, Wenwu did something completely unexpected, which was to fall in love. As these opening scenes end, we see the happy couple, young son in tow.
Which makes the chaos that follows, bringing us back to Wenwu and, eventually, Ta Lo, initially confusing, though that is the delight of the affair. The aforementioned bus battle (in which Katy shines, too, but in her own way) propels us away from California and on to Macau, where we meet Shaun’s sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and, eventually, reunite with Wenwu, with a few more exciting martial-arts sequences on the way. Though Wenwu had given up the Ten Rings when he married Li, he now wears them again and has plans to once more find Ta Lo and, this time, conquer it. That might not be such a great idea, though, as Li’s sister Nan (Michelle Yeoh, Crazy Rich Asians) explains, for that which Wenwu seeks could end the world as we know it.
And therein lies both the strength and weakness of the movie: the stakes are high (always good), but they are so in a manner we have seen countless times before. Still, the family conflict that grounds the drama is compelling, with Leung perfect as a mad, almost invincible patriarch. Liu shines as the protagonist, and Awkwafina offers excellent support, the rapport between them lending the film its funniest moments. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, then, is a mostly successful effort. It’s too bad that the CGI in the climactic moments is such a mess. Stick to the human stuff; it’s where the heart of the matter lies, and where the film works best.