I have been a massive admirer of martial arts films since I was a youngster, so seeing the genre represented, respected and modified to fit the superhero mold the way it is in the latest Marvel movie, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is a genuine treat. My affection for martial arts movies encompasses the ultra-violent Shaw Brothers Studios works, Bruce Lee’s self-created, minimalistic Jeet Kune Do, the use-everything-in-the-room-as-a-weapon-style of comedic kung fu that Jackie Chan inhabits, to Jet Li’s version of Wushu, and the more graceful efforts of choreographer and director Yuen Woo-ping. Among many other aspects of Shang-Chi, one of the film’s most enjoyable traits is the mixing and matching of different styles of martial arts to create something that is both a tribute to what has come before and a means of creating a greatest-hits package of fighting that simply looks great on screen.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy), the film will also be an introduction to one of the most charismatic leads in any Marvel movie, Simu Liu, a young man who must balance the way he was raised by his criminal father and his kind, moralistic mother. When we meet him as an adult, Shang-Chi (or as he’s known stateside, Shaun) is working alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina, delightful and funny, as always) as a valet in San Francisco, but while riding home on the bus, he is attacked by a group of would-be assassins, forcing Shaun to dust off his martial arts abilities and fend them off. Led by a villain known as Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu; I’ll let you guess why that’s the character’s name), Shaun manages to take care of business while Katy (who is established early as a crack driver) grabs the wheel of the out-of-control bus.
A video of the bus fight goes viral, and Shaun realizes that his estranged father is after him. His father is the centuries-old criminal mastermind Wenwu (known to some as the Mandarin, played by the great Tony Leung), who possesses the so-called Ten Rings (more like bracelets, which give him extraordinary power when fighting; the name of his army of fighters is also the Ten Rings). Wenwu is after Shaun, leading the younger man to decide to make his presence known in a big way by going to a high-profile, upper-echelon fight club (where you might spot some familiar fighters in cage matches) to meet the person in control, who turns out to be his long-lost sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who was left behind with their father when Shang-Chi ran away years earlier.
Throughout the movie, we dip back and forth between past and present as we learn what precipitated Shang-Chi leaving home not long after his beloved mother Li (Fala Chen) was killed by those seeking revenge on Wenwu. We also see young version of Shang-Chi (Jayden Zhang) and Xialing (Elodie Fong) learning their deadly skills under the guidance and punishment system of a masked teacher known as Death Dealer (Andy Le). The flashbacks are especially impressive because they reveal the somewhat magical world where Li came from and how her goodness inspired Wenwu to give up his criminal ways for a time. In the present day, Shang-Chi returns to this mystical location for training against his father’s inevitable arrival, where he’s met by his aunt Jiang Nan (Michelle Yeoh). But alongside the other humans, the village is populated by ancient animals that strongly resemble the floats and costumes you might see in a Chinese New Year’s parade—the dragons crossed with lions particularly stand out. It’s an exquisitely realized place, where production and creature design almost go hand in hand to create something other worldly.
Across a large body of water from the village is a protected cave where an ancient evil lives and can never come out, and naturally, it’s this evil that Wenwu wants out, so it can destroy the world that took his wife, placing father in conflict with son, to whom the Ten Rings also seem to be drawn to. Liu gets to really put on a show in this final act as a master of unarmed, weaponry-based kung fu, while Awkwafina brings humor and even some level of skill with a bow and arrow to the final fight. Admittedly, the more the film leans into the super-powered fighting (enhanced by the Ten Rings), the less interested I was in the battle. Both Liu and Leung (not to mention the rest of the cast) are fantastic at bare-bones martial arts fighting, so when the action starts in with the glowing power beams of the rings, I zone out as special effects supplant actual physical prowess.
The film does have a few connective-tissue surprised to the bigger Marvel universe, but that’s remarkably secondary (and mostly relegated to the mid- and post-credit scenes), making Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings one of the most stand-along entries in the studio’s 25-film slate. The movie does deal with the controversial history of the Mandarin in the Marvel films (mainly in Iron Man 3), but Shang-Chi also makes it incredibly easy to simply step into this movie without having any prior knowledge of, well, anything that came before. Moving forward, I’m sure the Shang-Chi character will be much more integrated with the rest of the Marvel characters, but this is a terrific, entry-level work that delivers on far more visceral action than we’re used to from these films. The highly personable cast makes us more than curious to find out where they go from here. Perhaps more importantly, this movie feels like the first actual chapter that moves into a realm that isn’t overly influenced by the storylines of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, and that’s as welcome as almost anything else in this universe.
Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings opens theatrically on Thursday, September 2.
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