Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

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

Storming into Labor Day weekend and exceeding box office expectations is Marvel Studios’ latest entry into their widely celebrated catalogue, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Starring Simu Liu as the titular Shang-Chi, opposite the magnetic Tony Leung, Shang-Chi is an action-adventure story eager to channel it’s inspirations in a movie that checks every box the last twenty have, with just enough “new” to keep you invested.

When it comes to Marvel Studios, their movies are chemically engineered to do extremely specific things to set the table for the pursuing entry. Shang-Chi is a little bit of a different story, and that’s probably why it works better than so many have. It exists within the bubble of the universe with enough acknowledgement of its history to broaden the scope, but it keeps its lens focused on the narrative. Not that the narrative is something, “never before seen”, or “truly captivating”, but it’s narratively sound and interested in giving purpose to it’s admittedly jagged structure. Flashbacks consistently obstruct the flow of the story to a near fault, but it all services the general idea that is (surprisingly) executed in a way that is rewarding. For its abundance of flashbacks, there is a present day action sequence prepared to allow it’s characters to participate in an environment where they actually feel engaged with their surroundings. Until it’s latest stage, Shang-Chi defies the soupy backlots of Atlanta for highwire acts and bus rides into destruction. The spaces are liminal, defined, and actively play a role in how the characters are able to maneuver their spaces and engage in fistdacuffs. This is something Marvel has struggled with for nearly a decade, and it is refreshing to see their roots of inspiration actually play a role in telling this respective story. Whether you note a Wuxia epic, your favorite Jackie Chan flick, or something as recent as The Raid, there is a clear affinity for its passions and that is a first for the entire franchise. Any 90s beat, spy drama, or political thriller was all lip service and manufactured hype that never embellished meaning in what we were watching the way this film managed to do.

When we take into consideration that Simu Liu vouched for a spot on Marvel’s casting couch, it’s incredible that he managed to land the role. Barring his physical capabilities, the acting talent just isn’t there. It really is as stale as his unearthed stock photos. Granted, the material he’s given seems limiting and uninterested in giving him something exciting, dramatic, or emotional to express, but he still misses the mark. When you compare to a world class actor like Tony Leung, everyone and their mother would lose that battle, but it’s the best example of everyone else around him simply being better. Not just as a performer, but as a character. Whether it’s Awkwafina’s Katy, Michelle Yeoh being great, or first timer Meng’er Zhang as Xialing, they are leagues above Simu. That’s not to say he can’t grow into being a great actor, but this was not a good or memorable first impression. 

When I reflect on my growing apprehension towards any of these films being remotely good, Shang-Chi managing to keep me invested comes as a big surprise. Although the last quarter is an absolute nightmare in terms of just about everything bad in this franchise, all of the buildup is worth noting. The action, the initial conflict between father and son, Tony Leung’s performance, the music, it’s all pretty impressive for a franchise that hasn’t made a good movie in over four years. This stems from an attempt to try and be about something, even if it doesn’t always benefit the entirety of the movie. As I mentioned previously, flashbacks litter this film from beginning to end. Every act, within an act, between every action sequence there is a blip of what came before, and it (kind of) works. Shang-Chi is about memories and the way they can linger throughout your life because the foundation of all of ourselves comes from who our parents are, and want us to be. With that being said, I wish this was internalized better within our protagonist to create a true sense of dramatic heft, but you can (at the very least) feel it when they aren't explicitly stating it. That’s ultimately why this happens to work much better than most of what they make. It properly teases the future in clips saved after the bow on top. It focuses on telling a beginning, middle, and end for this stage of Shang-Chi’s story. Giving him just enough to build upon for a potentially better sequel considering he is one of the only characters given any sort of breathing room. Although Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a far cry from being great, it’s a movie that packs a flurry of punches to distance itself from the usual fare for a significant amount of the runtime, instead of the entirety of it.

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