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

September 3, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

As we enter Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the studio is branching out to bring some of their lesser known comic book characters to the screen, and with it comes the chance to further diversify their slate of cinematic superheroes.

Such is the case with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a very entertaining, Asian-influenced comic book movie which is successful on both fronts. The film casts Canada’s Simu Liu in the title role of Shang-Chi, whose estranged father Wenwu (Tony Leung) is the leader of an ancient Chinese society called the Ten Rings, so named for the ten rings he carries on his arms that give him untold powers.

When we first meet Shang-Chi as an adult in the film, he is going by the name Shaun and drifting through a quarter-life crisis in San Francisco. He works part-time as a parking valet alongside his wisecracking best friend Katy (Awkwafina), and is choosing not to live up to his true potential. But Shaun is given the chance to fulfill his destiny when he is attacked by a group of thugs on the bus who steal the glowing green pendent that he wears.

Shaun is called back to China, where he reunites with his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and Katy comes along for the ride. Shaun and Xialing must team up to stop their father, who believes his late wife (Fala Chen) – their mother – is calling out to him from behind a cave wall, and that he must charge into her hidden, paradisiacal homeland of Ta Lo to rescue her. But doing so will unleash hell and threaten their peaceful existence. Without spoiling it, I will say that the story also has a fun surprise in store that directly connects back to an earlier Marvel film.

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who broke onto the scene with his 2013 indie film Short Term 12, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is solid entry into the MCU. While it does have some of the more familiar Marvel story beats, and obviously includes moments of exposition to connect it to both the past and future of the MCU, it has enough elements to make it feel fresh, starting with its predominantly Asian cast. Cretton also wisely keeps the film more grounded with strong character dynamics and some interesting familial drama.

Liu does a good job of playing Shang-Chi as a younger, distinctly millennial superhero, while also proving his chops as a capable action star. Awkwafina brings a certain levity to the screen, with her and Liu effortlessly bouncing off each other in a way that is delightful to watch. The film also has one of the MCU’s most interesting antagonists in Wenwu, who is both a villain and tragic figure, operating with the stubbornness of a man unable to grieve. It’s no surprise that an actor of Leung’s calibre breathes such life and depth into him, imbuing his villainous transformation with sadness.

The action sequences, which are heavily influenced by martial arts, are the highlights of the film. The fight on the bus strikes the right balance between being exciting and funny, as Shaun surprises everyone with his bare-knuckle fighting skills, and Katy is forced to take the wheel as the vehicle careens through the streets of Los Angeles. Liu and Awkwafina both shine in the sequence, which is refreshingly allowed to play out in longer takes to showcase the hand-to-hand combat.

There is also a great foot chase and fight amidst the scaffolding on the side of a Macau high rise that is impressive both for its staging and choreography. There are some interesting visual effects here as well, including a couple of scenes in a labyrinth-like forest where the trees move to form a maze for cars to go through. We also get some fine CG creature work, from a headless chicken-pig named Morris, to a pretty imposing dragon in the engaging if formulaic finale.

Cinematographer Bill Pope does do a good job of capturing the action scenes. But if there’s one downfall to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it’s that the film often has the same flat, greyish colour grade that has plagued many a Marvel movie. There was a chance for them to fully step away from this and do something more vibrant, and I wish the colours had been allowed to pop more. Certain scenes also appear overly dark and murky, including the final battle, a problem that will surely only be made worse if you see the film in 3D.

But I liked the film overall. It’s a well done origin story with some solid martial arts-inspired action, an interesting villain, and good banter between Liu and Awkwafina. For these reasons, and the onscreen representation it offers for those who don’t normally get to see themselves as the leads in a superhero movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a winner.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now playing exclusively in theatres.

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