Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ★★★

Marvel's formula has served them incredibly well at the box office and in the minds of pattern-loving moviegoers everywhere, but in recent years, more and more viewers have scrutinized the studio's seeming inability to let their plethora of budding auteur filmmakers imprint a stylistic mark. Sure, a film like Thor: Ragnarok is far better and more distinctly colourful than its predecessors, but when watched alongside Hunt for the Wilderpeople, does it really feel like a Taika Waititi film, or is it a paycheck gig with a smidge of leeway? The same can be said of the eccentric minds behind Sinister, Fruitvale Station and (to a lesser extent) Super. There may be some individual flair sprinkled throughout each of these Marvel efforts, but the fact that the director's name usually doesn't show up until 3 sentences into these films' Wikipedia pages is rather telling.

All this is to say that with Phase 4, Marvel finally seems to be allowing their directors some more creative breathing room. Of course, I haven't bothered wasting my time with Black Widow to confirm that, but rumblings of Chloé Zhao applying her indie (and now Oscar-winning) clout to shoot The Eternals in natural light haven't gone unnoticed. Before that though, Marvel has given us their first taste of martial arts mayhem courtesy of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Of all directors to show out with maybe the most distinct action filming yet in a Marvel film, Destin Daniel Cretton—whose last big action scene consisted of Kaitlyn Dever cathartically smashing a car—was not the first, second, or even fifth name on my radar.

And yes, the Marvel fanboys freaking out over choreographed hand-to-hand combat as if Jackie Chan never graced our screens does occasionally induce some well-deserved wincing, but that isn't to say that Cretton's small-scale efforts don't shine. Marred in CGI as some of these early fight scenes may be, for the most part, their slickness isn't entirely wrapped up in the sheen of big budget inoffensive filmmaking, but rather in the meticulousness required to make martial arts fighting enthralling. The good will acquired from Cretton's energetic style is almost entirely undone in the final act though, wherein the distinguishable Jet Lee-isms that defined earlier set pieces are consumed by the typical monsoon of grey CGI Marvel garbage. Just when the film was carving a name for itself, Cretton seemingly tagged out from production in favour of Joe Yes-Man.

Despite the disappointing finale that unravels most of what gives Shang-Chi its potential, Cretton's more characteristic penchant for understated family drama shines through. Of course, the "understated" part takes a backseat (let's not forget the company in charge, here), but aside from overly expositional dialogue ("We've been friends for over ten years..." is one of Awkwafina's first lines), the family turmoil on display is effective enough for someone not making Manchester By The Sea.

Most of that comes from resident libido-awakener Tony Leung, who, as usual, injects so much into his performance with so little. Maybe it was distracting to hear him speak English at all, but he was actually far more impactful whenever speaking Mandarin or, most often, when not speaking at all. Can you just imagine Simu Liu's reaction when showing up on set for one of his first films, ready to share his charisma with the world, only for Leung to saunter on set and make him look like exactly like the inexperienced actor he is, in front of an audience who's probably never seen a film in Cantonese?

Indeed, in a film called Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the least investing aspect beyond the bloated finale is Shang-Chi himself. Even beyond the bulky flashback scenes that probably compose the best parts of the film (an aspect that may read as a detriment in itself), Liu simply isn't given much to do beyond staring intensely and occasionally quipping with Awkwafina. For a film so focused on connecting with the past and being true to yourself, it almost seems poetic that a character embedded in this now-established movie formula ended up completely outshone by his elders.


2021 Ranked.

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