Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ★★★½

For all its faults and weaknesses, there was an indulgent thrill in seeing World War Z do classic zombie tropes on a $200 million budget. As a huge genre fan, there’s a similar thrill to seeing Marvel throw many many millions at kung-fu and wuxia action with their latest movie. Still, what can the MCU bring to the table that 50+ years of legacy and classics haven’t? When the choreography of no-budget shorts often put Hollywood productions to shame and ‘90s in-camera effects were already vividly bringing the martial world to life, does Shang Chi have a chance at standing out?

The answer is a mixed one, yes and no and maybe. This is finely-tuned MCU entertainment, the formula honed over a decade-plus to deliver a top-tier origin story. The pace oscillates between too rushed and too much wheel-spinning. But in the end, it all evens out to more time spent with likable characters who I can’t wait to see interact with the wider universe. Whenever the pacing or storytelling falters, the chemistry and performances of Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng'er Zhang, and Tony Leung are there to pick up the slack.

The camera is torn between classic dynamism (the early bus fight is the clear highlight) and generic Marvel framing, but the action direction of late master Brad Allan always shines. The cast is 110% game too, Simu especially, in their commitment to unleashing the best action the MCU has seen yet. The first half is clearly drawing from the kinetic likes of Jackie Chan and Corey Yuen, while the second half is an ode to martial-world wuxia and fantasy action like Chinese Ghost Story. The transition isn’t exactly a smooth one, and for all its slick digital spectacle, nothing here is as inventive as what Lam Nai-Choi could do with stop-motion, rubber, and lasers. However, the rings are a versatile weapon that gives the high-flying super-powered combat a pounding physicality, and Tony Leung grounds the most fantastical moments in looming gravitas.

It should come as no surprise that Leung is the driving force behind Shang Chi, both the man and the movie. The legendary actor turns what could have been a generic Bond supervillain into a father figure of hardened guilt and causal menace, able to justify some questionable decisions and actions through an expression, a tone, a motion. If Leung is pure class, then Liu is pure charisma, able to sell goofy everyman and larger-than-life hero with a laid-back cool. He’s an awesome addition to the MCU’s roster; his confident charm and friendship with Awkwafina are going to be fun through-lines in future team-ups.

So what does $150 million bring to the kung-fu genre? Brad Allan’s eye for action and allowing choreography to shine amid digital effects. A killer cast with endearing chemistry and rollicking globe-trotting scale. Tony Leung in his first-ever American production. $150 million can’t stop the script from doing Martial Club’s Andy Le dirty however; after a memorable introduction, his wasted presence and fate were a disappointment. Michelle Yeoh and Yuen Wah getting Marvel paychecks just might be worthy compensation though

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