The arrival of Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, which kicked off with the long-delayed Black Widow, was a decent but unspectacular solo entry. The next one in the line, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t really the kind of a Marvel film that got me all hyped up in the first place. I’m not sure why. It probably has to do with the underwhelming trailer or the fact that Simu Liu, who plays the title character look bland and wooden. I know it’s not entirely fair to judge too much from the trailer itself but whatever it is, first impressions always matter the most.
Since the first trailer, I didn’t bother to check out the subsequent previews until the eventual release of the film itself. And so, I attended the press screening with little expectation other than feeling curious about Tony Leung (Chiu-Wai)’s first Hollywood debut (more on that later). Before I get to the review, here’s what Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are all about: At the beginning of the film, we learn that Shaun (Simu Liu) works as a car jockey in San Francisco along with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina). One day, they encounter a group of thugs on the bus, where they insist Shang-Chi in giving up the precious green pendant that he wears around his neck.
Long story short, Katy is shocked to find out that Shaun can fight very well and even learn his real name (Shang-Chi, that is). From there, Shang-Chi and Katy travel to Macau to locate his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) before they are forced to return home to his father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), who is the leader of the Ten Rings. His superpower lies in the five rings each that he put on in both of his arms.
One of the things that I like about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is Destin Daniel Cretton’s respectful decision not to turn this predominantly Asian-led Marvel movie, where everyone only speaks English. The Mandarin language is largely spoken here, especially the extended prologue detailed how Wenwu first met his future beautiful wife (Fala Chen’s Jiang Li) when they square off against each other in the mystical bamboo forest of Ta Lo. What follows next is the elegantly and at times, slow-motion choreographed fight sequence between the two of them, which recalled the work of Zhang Yimou (2004’s House of Flying Daggers immediately come to mind) and even John Woo (the way they look at each other while engaging in a fight reminiscent of a dance).
Both Tony Leung and Fala Chen share great and wonderful chemistry. The former particularly impresses me the most and kudos to Destin Daniel Cretton for bringing out the best in him with Leung’s typically charismatic performance just like how he was always known for in both Hong Kong and Chinese cinemas. Here, Leung brings all the necessary depths to make his role of Wenwu far from just your garden-variety Marvel antagonist. In other words, Leung’s Wenwu is one of the best Marvel villains ever introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, thanks to the screenplay — credited to Destin Daniel Cretton himself along with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham — which gives him both solid motivation and backstory that justify his course of action. Frankly, I must say that Leung is a scene-stealer whenever he appears on the screen.
Then, there’s the action, choreographed by Andy Cheng and the late Brad Allan (who unfortunately passed away last month at the age of 48). Their prior experience working as part of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team did them a lot of favour in making the fight sequences look like there are straight out from a Hong Kong action film.
The only glaring difference here is the overreliance on CGI, which tends to rob the visual intensity of the otherwise elaborate fight choreography. But if you can look past that, it does deliver its goods. Apart from the earlier bamboo forest-set fight sequence, the scene where Shang-Chi single-handedly squared off against a group of thugs, which are actually Wenwu’s henchmen inside a moving bus is just as praiseworthy. It also helps that Destin Daniel Cretton, the indie filmmaker behind the acclaimed Short Term 12 (2013), knows well how to make good use of his virtuoso camerawork to help elevate the action sequences.
Now, onto the main actor himself — Simu Liu of TV’s Kim’s Convenience fame, making his first big break in a major Hollywood film and while he looks the part playing the slacker car-jockey role, he somehow lacks the charisma and pathos to pull off his transformative role from a loafer to a changed and responsible person as he fulfils his destiny as Shang-Chi the gifted warrior.
His co-star, Awkwafina delivers a decent supporting turn as Shang-Chi’s comic-relief best friend/sidekick and so does Meng’er Zhang as Xialing as well as Michelle Yeoh in her role as Shang-Chi’s aunt, Ying Nan. Ben Kingsley reprised his kooky role as Trevor Slattery (in case you have forgotten, he was previously seen in Iron Man 3 and Marvel One-Shot: All Hail the King), offering a few hilarious moments in this film, particularly whenever he shared his scenes with his unusually faceless pet nicknamed Morris (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker).
As much as I appreciate how Destin Daniel Cretton takes his time to establish Wenwu’s aforementioned motivation and backstory, the whole Shang-Chi’s journey from zero to hero and self-discovery is all familiar stuff that stays close to the same old Marvel formula, complete with the obligatory CG-heavy third act. Speaking of the latter, the full-blown fantastical moment goes on too long to the point it overstays its welcome.
Overall, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has its few moments but it’s far from a great Marvel film that the overwhelmingly positive reviews have surfaced online since early September. Let’s see if Chloé Zhao’s upcoming Eternals can do better when it made its theatrical debut this November.