Phase 4 of Disney and the MCU continues with Shang-Chi and The Legends of the Ten Rings.
In many ways a classic hero’s journey, Shang-Chi and The Legends of the Ten Rings finds its titular character, going under the assumed name of Shaun (Simu Liu), living a mundane life in San Francisco as a valet. His day job is uneventful, but allows him to hang out with his similarly aimless best friend – and excellent driver – Katy (Awkwafina).
Shaun’s life is upended when he and Katy are attacked on the bus by Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), a one-armed assassin who attempts to steal Shaun’s jade amulet. The bus attack, teased in the film’s marketing, is exciting and outrageous, making use of both the city’s infamous hilly geography, as well as Shang-Chi’s Hong Kong-influenced choreography, courtesy of Australian stunt coordinator Brad Allan.
With his cover blown and Katy blindsided, the pair travel to Macau to warn Shang-Chi’s estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). En route, screenwriters Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham and Destin Daniel Cretton (who also directs) fill in Shang-Chi’s mysterious background via flashback, which includes a love affair between Wenwu (Tony Leung), a centuries old war monger who controls the titular 10 rings, and Jiang Li (Fala Chen), the guardian of the mystical land of Ta Lo.
As a hybrid kung-fu/crime film, very little of Shang-Chi’s backstory surprises. And while the recurring flashbacks often disrupt the narrative flow of the present day rising action, there’s something satisfying about watching a coming of age film that includes numerous training montages. This is especially true when it affords screen legend Leung more screen time and features talented child actors like Jayden Zhang (as young Shang-Chi) and Elodie Fong (as young Xialing).
Following a rocky re-introduction with Xialing and a brief cameo by Doctor Strange’s Wong (Benedict Wong), there’s another attack, which takes the action outside onto scaffolding hundreds of feet above the ground. It’s one of the film’s most exciting set pieces and highlights Cretton and cinematographer William Pope’s ability to capture action in both overhead shots, as well as via swooping drones that weave audiences directly in and out of the melee.
Once the siblings (and Katy) connect with their father and the crux of the conflict is explored, the film settles into a bit of a lull. Wenwu’s motivation is far less insidious than most MCU villains, which confirms the production team’s messaging that Shang-Chi is first and foremost about family. Naturally everything builds to an assault on Ta Lo and a gate that, if opened, would result in certain doom, resulting in an epic, sweeping battle sequence on land, air and water.
The outcome is very predictable, but that hardly matters when the film is so enjoyable. As Shang-Chi, Liu is effortlessly appealing in a low-key, unassuming way. The charming Canadian actor doesn’t anchor the film so much as he grounds it, allowing the other cast members to shine as an ensemble.
Awkwafina is expectedly great as the comedic relief, acting as the audience surrogate who facilitates the necessary familial and world-building exposition. Shang-Chi wisely employs the comedian as more than mere wisecracking sidekick, though, and the actress has great camaraderie with iconic actor Yuen Wah. Ditto Liu and Michelle Yeoh, whose appearance serves to inject much heart and warmth into the film’s back half (the actress also continues to more than hold her own in martial arts sequences).
Special shout out to costume designer Kym Barrett for the visually arresting Ta Lo costuming, particularly the battle armour. And while Allan’s stunts dazzle, especially Wenwu and Jiang Li’s wuxia-style fight in an enchanted forest, the final FX-heavy battle sequence disappointingly evokes other superhero climaxes in its use of bland gray colour palette and frenetic editing. While the scope and stakes are suitably high, watching yet another orgy of CGI characters collide on screen has become exceedingly tiring.
The Bottom Line: Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings is a solid introduction to the character and Simu Liu is a very welcome addition to Marvel’s superhero roster. With spectacular fight choreography and gorgeous costuming, Shang-Chi is an entertaining, albeit narratively familiar, entry in Phase 4 of the MCU.
Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings arrives in theatres Sept 3