BonfireAtNight’s review published on Letterboxd:
Shang-Chi & The Legend Of The Ten Rings was surprisingly great. Visually, it's obviously inspired by the likes of Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers, but it's really the character-driven approach to the origin story that make it so vastly enjoyable. Our two heroes - Shaun and Katy - are delightfully charming and for the most part, their quirky jokes really deliver.
About a thousand years ago, evil commander Xu Wenwu brings the ten rings into his possession, legendary weapons that grant him immortality and the power to control history for the centuries to come. In the 1990s, he learns about the mythical city of Ta Lo and he is interested in its fabulous creatures to increase his powers even more. But the village's guardian, the graceful Ying Li, prevents him from going through with his plans.
Surprisingly, the two fall in love with each other. Since Wenwu is still not allowed to enter the village, the two leave and start a more ordinary life together. They are having two children, Shang-Chi and Xialing. Wenwu introduces his son to the martial arts and he becomes incredibly adept in hand-to-hand fighting (and so does his sister, by training for herself). Unfortunately, when they left Ta Lo, Ying Li lost her superhuman abilities and she is killed by old opponents of her husband. The family completely falls apart when Shang-Chi is not able to go through with the violent plans his father had in mind for him and he flees to the US. In the present day, his father finally found him, and he has delusional plans to reunite himself not only with his children, but also with his dead wife.
The villain is one high point of the story. After the puzzling take on the notorious Mandarin in Iron Man 3, Tony Leung gives the character the presence he deserves. His ambitions are not overly original, but his twisted attitudes make him thoroughly unpredictable. I'm ashamed that I didn't know who the actor was, as his charisma rivals Hollywood's biggest household names. You can totally feel why his children would like to stand up to him, yet are unable to, as tragically he completely lost his ground and in his action (if not his motivations) he again became the man he had left behind.
The action is blazing fast and incredibly thrilling. I couldn't believe how awesome the bus scene in the beginning was. This was everything I wanted Iron Fist to be, and more. I watched the first season of Into the Badlands and wondered why Marvel's approach to the genre couldn't have been more similar - but this was so much better. Seriously, how much action can you pack in so little space? I don't even care about the wonky CGI, this completely nailed the introduction of a new hero to the universe.
And what a hero he is. From the outsider's perspective, Shaun and Katy both struggle to find their place in life. They work for a hotel and park cars, but they are satisfied with what they are. Then it turns out that Shaun is an unstoppable fighting machine and involved in a century-old attempt at world domination. During the journey, the reflect on their shortcomings (for instance, Katy observes how she is never able to get good at something because she always begins something new), but still stay true to themselves. I hope the two will be given the chance to shine more within the established universe.
In the final act, it almost enters Godzilla territory. To be honest, I struggle to understand why they felt the need for that. So far, the story had been all about the characters and their personal struggles. Suddenly, there is this massive CGI spectacle. A movie like this probably gets assigned a massive budget before production even starts, so I assume they just had a lot of money to spend. The pacing was off too, especially in how they acquaint themselves with the people of the village and how Katy begins her training. Then it rushes through the different stages of the battle in what feels like the final moments of a video game. The village soldiers in their armors and with their mediaeval looked cool, though.
If you've seen a Marvel movie, you know that the stories are rather formulaic, and this certainly is no exception. But for me it was among the better origin stories. I think it also deserves a mention that they actually found Chinese-speaking actors, which adds authenticity and diversity (not a given, especially not with Disney). Had in been given a better final act, this would have been awesome. Still, for the action alone this is great blockbuster cinema.