MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Superhero/ Stars: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung, Tim Roth, Ben Kingsley, Jade Xu, Ronny Chieng, Dallas Liu, Jodi Long, Andy Le, Zach Cherry, Yuen Wah, Jayden Tianyi Zhang/Runtime: 132 minutes
I think it is safe to say that even though the intriguing and ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe has been trying out novel narrative techniques and methods this year with their quartet of shows on streaming giant Disney+, they have been engaged in the same old same old when it comes to the sagas that make their way to the silver screen. Indeed their outlook is still the same that every movie should be a special spectacle and that has resulted in every new movie that comes out possessing characters that are both powerful yet also charming finding themselves in the middle of a riveting adventure that is big in terms of both spectacle and scope. Suffice it to say that this method is one that has worked out amazingly well since its inception back in 2008. At the same time though, their latest movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a slice of cinematic pie with a distinct flair to it. Indeed this is because instead of astonishing us with a visual effects-overloaded third act, this is one film that I honestly think would have fared a lot better had the third act shown a lot more in the way of restraint especially when taking into account how wonderfully this movie functions on just character and physical combat action beats. I mean don’t get me wrong: Simu Liu is a fantastic lead, Awkwafina is enjoyable as always, and Tony Leung is a rivetingly three-dimensional antagonist and yes the action beats are truly distinct and novel for something coming from Marvel. It’s just tragic that Shang-Chi puts its best positives on the backburner for the third act of the movie and sidelines them so we can get the usual Marvel throwdown at the end of the movie between CGI creatures and no less than the fate of the entire world being on the line for the film’s hero and his group of allies.
The plot is as follows: Now right off the bat I guess you should know that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a film that fits into that particular niche in comic book movies known as the origin saga. At the same time though, this is also an origin saga that is triumphantly able to toss a lot of the typical tropes out the window which result in us meeting our titular hero as a fully realized character albeit one who is choosing to spend his days living under a different identity. To that end, we see that Shang-Chi is, when our movie opens, living a stress-free life working as a valet with a dear friend by the name of Katy whilst hosting no real desire to do anything else with his life than what he is doing. Tragically, we see that this is not in the cards for him as it isn’t long before our hero’s past invades his present in the shape of a pack of warriors led by a particularly lethal one by the name of Razorfist. We soon see that this pack of warriors, searching for a necklace worn by our hero, terrorize him while he is riding the bus and in defending everyone onboard we see that he is forced to reveal that there is perhaps more to him than he has been letting on. In fact, we soon learn that our hero is the son of a man by the name of Wenwu. A man who, among other attributes, is a ruthless and potent crime boss who has lived for a really long time with the aid of 10 magic armbands that not only have put a pause on his aging, but also work as really potent weapons. We soon see that Wenwu is dangerously obsessed with the idea that our hero’s dead mom Jiang Li is actually alive and well albeit stuck on another world and will let nothing stand in his way of his quest to bring her back no matter what the cost. Finding himself taking issue with his dad’s attempts however, we soon see that our hero finds himself stuck with no choice, but to at long last step out of the shadows and face the demons that he has allowed to haunt his life for far too long….
Now one of the biggest keys that has enabled Marvel Studios to succeed from the very beginning is that not only are they skilled at knowing when best to bring new heroes into the fold and then finding the right people to play these respective parts. When looking at this movie from that angle, I can say that this movie is quite the success story. Indeed anyone who ever took the time to watch even a single episode of the sitcom known as Kim’s Convenience would be able to tell you that this movie’s lead actor Simu Liu has charm and charisma in equal degree and suffice it to say that as this film’s titular hero those components are finally allowed to shine in one of the biggest cinematic spotlights possible. Not only that, but Liu does a wonderful job of making this character both down to earth and tough to such an extent that he really gives off the vibe that he’s the kind of person you want to get a beer with whilst also being thankful he’s around when a super tough villain shows up to make life rough. At the same time however, it’s also worth noting that the work done in this by Liu revolves more about who this character is rather than him experiencing any character evolution due to the character already being so well-established thus giving the audience an opportunity to see who this guy fully is more than anything. Instead, in an odd yet intriguingly well done narrative choice it is the character of Katy who undergoes the most character growth as the movie goes on. This is primarily because while she is on equal footing from a place of pathos her best bud/ our titular hero she also isn’t hiding any secrets that reveal her to be an extremely talented martial artist who was brought up in the mystic arts. Instead, she is set up to be the eyes and ears of the movie goer and in that respect while yes Awkwafina contributes a mood and tone that is equal parts sweet and funny, she also does a wonderful job of showcasing the organic growth Katy goes through as the film goes along.
Now besides it’s rather intriguing choices in terms of characterization, this slice of cinematic pie also finds itself in possession of a narrative that doesn’t always function as well as it should due to the fact that we get a pretty big exposition dump dropped on us throughout. Thankfully, this isn’t as huge of a detriment as it could be by and large due to the fact that this slice of cinematic pie is in possession of a top-notch tempo that is propelled forward by fight scenes that are truly riveting in every sense of the word. Now yes we have some truly fantastic ground-level hero action beats from Marvel before with such noteworthy examples including the Daredevil Netflix show and 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. At the same time though, the action beats in this film are ones that are just as good as those if not better. Indeed the stunt team in this have managed to conjure up action beats that are just otherworldly with warriors fighting in the most fast and furious manner whilst also leaving you on the edge of your seat with every single punch that is thrown. Yet more than punches and kicks that are so fast they might as well break the sound barrier, this slice of cinematic pie is one that constructs every set piece to be the most insane possible and the effects in them are completely and utterly phenomenal. Indeed the sequence shown in the trailer with our titular hero engaging in a skirmish aboard a bus makes for an engaging and riveting initial taste of things to come in this movie’s first act with perhaps the most astonishing achievement that this slice of cinematic pie pulling off being a combat sequence that goes down on the side of a huge building in Macau that might just be the new #1 cause for vertigo, but we also get some truly riveting action beats inspired by wuxia that are as beautiful to behold as they are just downright astonishing.
Now in the midst of both the family skirmishes and the distinct yet extremely well done action beats, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one that functions at its finest when it gives off the vibe of being extremely personal and as a result the material in this really pleads for its final throwdown to be of a similar ilk. At the same time though, this is a movie that is being made by Marvel. Not only that, but this is also an intro movie for a new hero to enter the scene in this universe and as such the film also has a certain task where it has to prove that our hero can be as much as functioning part of this universe as heroes like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man. As such, this results in the movie doesn’t give us a riveting and emotional throwdown between a dad and his boy, but instead a conflict complete with supernatural fantasy elements, the fate of the world being at stake, and armies engaging in conflict against CGI creatures. I mean don’t get me wrong it isn’t terrible as there are some riveting moments and the creatures look fairly impressive. At the same time though, the action in this doesn’t really give off the vibe that it is an organic continuation of all that has come prior to it in the film. I mean you can hope all you want that the most astonishing martial arts action beats that this film could provide would be found at the end, but rather I just feel you should prepare yourself now and be aware that this is most definitely not the case.
All in all I think is quite a safe bet to make that when you, the viewer are on your way out of the theater upon having seen the slice of cinematic superheroic pie that is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, I promise that you will find yourself immensely intrigued and excited about the sequel that I can assure you is pretty much all but inevitable at this point that will have our titular protagonist showcased in an adventure that is able to take complete and utter advantage of his skill as a superhero and is not limited to any extent by the typical intro trappings that are part and parcel of the origin saga. It is in that respect that this latest installment of the MCU is a truly successful slice of cinematic pie. Yet if you take the opportunity to view this movie completely and utterly on its own this plain and simply is a good slice of cinematic pie with quite a few great ingredients contained inside its runtime. Thus in terms of the cast of characters and its distinct approach, this slice of cinematic pie does open new doors in the ever expanding and growing Marvel Cinematic Universe even if it ultimately is hindered to some degree by its adherence to the, by this time, typical Marvel Cinematic Universe style to doing things. On a scale of 1-5 I give Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings a solid 3.5 out of 5.