Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings : Review
Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings introduces West to East, an incomparable marriage between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and grand Hong Kong sword-and-sorcery period action epics where honor, loyalty, and love are prized above all else. In color, form, and tone, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings emulates some of the best of the Hong Kong wire-fu films which gained traction with Western audiences in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s while being injected with Marvel’s signature themes of self-discovery and its ever-present “Oh God, oh God, we’re all gonna die” ethos.
Some might call it an easy layup – after all, wouldn’t it make sense to go retro and delve back into the kind of opera which influenced the kind of films the MCU has churned out over the last 13 years? Granted, all of these superhero stories rely on the Monomyth or “heroic journey,” where the adventure stems from a fall from grace which requires spending time reckoning with mistakes until the path to triumph clears. However, director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton layers warmth, grief, humor, and an edge of darkness into his MCU entry, resulting in riveting (yet somewhat familiar) origin story.
At the center of it is Shaun/Shang Chi (Simu Liu), a westernized Chinese immigrant living in San Francisco. His speech bears no trace of his past, and he’s definitely living under the radar in contrast to the life his father, immortal warlord Wenwu/The Mandarin (Tony Leung – yay!), wanted for him. Yup, The Mandarin – previously seen in the flesh in Iron Man Three, revealed to be actor Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), hired to play a role which, eventually, lands him in prison, where an emissary of the real Mandarin approaches him and lets Trevor know that someone’s quite pissed with him appropriating his name. (If you haven’t seen the Marvel One-Shot “All Hail the King,” do yourself a favor and get on that.)
From feudal China to the present, Wenwu and his mythic organization The Ten Rings have orchestrated catastrophic world events and high-profile assassinations from the shadows, never leaving so much as the scantest trace of evidence to tie them to anything. Unfortunately for Wenwu, the last few years have seen the death of his beloved wife Jiang Li (Fala Chen) and sudden disappearance of teenage Shang Chi, leaving remaining daughter Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) to fend for herself. But when Jiang Li’s voice starts calling to Wenwu from beyond the grave, begging him to save her, he’ll stop at nothing to bring her back, even if it means assigning his warriors to hunt both Shaun and Xialing down for something Jiang Li gave to them before she died.
Of course, Shaun wants none of this – he’s living a nondescript life as a hotel valet parker, working alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), someone he’s known since high school and who lives just as much of a low-rent life as he does. They party late into the night (never mind their early-morning shifts at the hotel) and take guests’ sportscars for joyrides. Shaun is the straight-man Abbott to Katy’s mischievous Costello, their friendship being built of the bond between similar outcasts, thick as thieves and never backing down from each other’s side. So when Wenwu’s henchmen come calling (courtesy of a thrilling San Francisco bus ride – the residents there have got to be wondering about the multitude of destructive car chases that seem to happen frequently), Katy sees no option but to stay right by Shaun’s side, even though there’s more to him than he’s ever told her.
Grief is a major theme of this movie, but not just for Jiang Li; it’s grieving a family scattered by violence, a once-in-a-lifetime shot at true companionship, and the simple hope for a venerable life. Wenwu has lost everything, and when the chance presents itself to get it back, he’ll do anything for it. Likewise, everything good for Shang Chi died – including his name and his relationship with his sister – along with his mother, and he’s had to become someone else, losing his own self in the process. For Xialing, it’s losing the one person she could count on – her father didn’t teach her the things he taught Shang Chi, and her brother didn’t come back when he said he would – and having to live a life devoid of love.
Shaun’s journey back to being Shang Chi is the heart of our story, but the film belongs just as much to Xialing and Katy as they play their roles in Wenwu’s endgame. Simu Liu, Meng’er Zhang, Awkwafina, and Tony Leung bring so much to their characters and seem perfectly cast as Shang Chi and his erstwhile and kinda ersatz family. The meekness which Liu gives to Shaun is borne of a sense of shame stemming from his past while not living up to his father’s expectations; there’s a palpable conflict Liu wears on his face, trying to find a way to save the world and his father from certain doom.
Zhang inhabits Xialing with a coldness characteristic of the overlooked and shunned, and when she lets a lighter side peek through, it deliberately throws us off and makes us suspicious of her motives. Is she truly there to help Shang Chi fight the forces of darkness, or is she ten steps ahead of us and just waiting for things to play out the way she wants? And as their patriarch, Leung cuts a confident yet melancholy swath across the screen, knowing full well that what Wenwu wants is the impossible and that he has to use his children to get it. Wenwu’s a complicated figure, and Leung is more than adept at showing us the abyss of Wenwu’s pain and almost endears this man to us. Like a lot of Marvel villains, he only sees what he wants and how to achieve it, regardless of the collateral damage.
But what can be said of Awkwafina other than she needs to be arrested for stealing every scene she’s in? She’s a breath of fresh air as Katy, an insecure millennial who doesn’t know what she’s capable of doing or where she belongs in the world; all she knows is that wherever she lands, she’s going to make the most of it in her own unique, devil-may-care fashion. Awkwafina is a delight, transitioning from comic relief to stalwart friend to valiant warrior with ease. She makes Katy a formidable hero with a knack for quick disbelief followed instantly by earnest acceptance and a “let’s see what comes next” eagerness.
Making this the first martial arts Marvel movie is the bravura stunt coordination of the late Brad Allan, whose untimely passing 27 days before this film’s release colors the film immeasurably. Coming up through the ranks of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, he and his stunt fighting skills have wowed audiences since the late 1990’s, and he leaves this gift with us, a showcase of his hard-earned prowess in one of the biggest movies of the year. Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings features outstanding hand-to-hand combat, with Allan’s inimitable, signature intensity-building and layered style amping the film well past its brethren. Fans of Allan’s will undoubtedly spend this movie both enjoying what’s on screen and in tears as they watch his final work.* (Author’s note: I speak from experience.)
Largely, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings features a lot of similar thematic ground as its MCU predecessors. However, there’s a groundswell of deep-seated and long-buried emotion at play here which separates it from the pack. We dig deep into Shang Chi’s past – and that of his family’s – but there aren’t any cute one-liners to paint over the tension or the darkness we find as we go further. This film doesn’t hesitate to make its characters deal with the irreparable damage done to themselves and others who found themselves in Wenwu or Shang Chi’s paths. It’s a terrific action movie, but the lonely depths of how each person lives with their own consequences gives Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings a gorgeous balance between action sequences and the figurative battle for each character’s soul.
* – The upcoming Kingsman prequel, The King’s Man, in which Allan also served as stunt coordinator, was completed before starting production on Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence/action sequences and language.
Contains mid- and post-credits scenes.
Running time: 133 minutes.
Released by Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
In theaters September 3, 2021.