Movie Review – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Ever since the success of Crazy Rich Asians (2018), big-budget films from Hollywood starring Asian characters and particularly Asian actors have gotten a boost. There has always been smaller, independent films like Minari (2020) or Boogie (2021). However, flicks with budgets north of $50 million or even into $100 million with Asian leads has never really been a thing until the backlash against whitewashing Asian characters hit a fever pitch in things like Ghost in the Shell (2017). Following Warner Bros., the Walt Disney Company positioned Mulan (2020) to be a big deal. Unfortunately, the studio was hampered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as all studios were and films were shuffled around or delayed. As a result, this year has seen a number of big-budget Hollywood productions, namely action films, with Asian leads. This film is in fact the third such live-action flick, so far in 2021.
Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience and Taken) stars as Shaun aka Shang-Chi, a valet at a fancy hotel in San Francisco. His best friend is a fellow valet that works with him. He doesn’t seem to have any family, although he appears to be close to his best friend and her Chinese-American family. That family hints that there might be something happening romantically between Shaun and his female friend. But it’s also made clear that the reason Shaun gets along with her is because both are basically juvenile, despite being adults. Both are basically teenagers, even though both are probably in their late 20’s. They’re not irresponsible. Actually, Shaun might be the most responsible, but they’re not particularly ambitious, certainly not in a way that an Asian family might want.
Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight) co-stars as Katy, the fellow valet who is Shaun’s best friend. No, she’s not ambitious. She’s perfectly fine with just being a valet and nothing more. She’s perfectly fine because she loves driving cars and especially loves NASCAR. She perhaps has dreams of being a race car driver, but she’s not interested in pursuing it actively. It doesn’t seem like she’s interested in Shaun romantically, but she seems to spend her entire work day next to him and even her free time at night with him, having dinner with other friends or drinking and singing karaoke.
Her perception of Shaun is changed when Shaun is attacked and he breaks out some intense and well-trained martial arts. This leads to a globe-trotting journey that will reveal Shaun’s back-story and his actual family. First and foremost, this film is an action film that really is a series of martial arts fights where we see Shaun go against about a half-dozen adversaries. All of which are a result of his father’s actions.
Tony Leung (The Grandmaster and In the Mood for Love) also co-stars as Wenwu, the aforementioned father to Shaun. Wenwu is Chinese and he’s also 1,000-years-old. He’s able to live for that long because he possesses a magical item called the ten rings. The ten rings are literally metallic bands that fit around both his arms. Those rings give him longevity, super-strength, agility and the ability to manipulate energy to do fantastical things. Unfortunately, he used the power of the rings to become the leader of a criminal organization called the Ten Rings. He’s basically a gang leader who dominates other organizations, even governments in order to accumulate a lot of wealth.
Wenwu is changed when he meets and falls in love with Ying Li, a woman who lives in Ta Lo, a village hidden inside a remote forest, somewhere in China. It’s akin to other hidden locations in comic book films. It’s the Asian equivalent to Themyscira in Wonder Woman (2017) or Wakanda in Black Panther (2018). It’s also akin to something like Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) or Narnia from the books and film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). Yes, Ta Lo is mostly a magical land with bamboo trees that can move and where mythical creatures like dragons exist.
Meng’er Zhang, in her feature debut, plays Xialing, the sister to Shaun. She lives in Macau where she owns and operates an underground fight club that involves alien or supernatural beings. She herself is well trained in martial arts, but she has a beef with her brother because she feels abandoned. It’s revealed that Shaun ran away from home when he was 14. He lied to Xialing and said he would be back. Xialing waited for over a decade until she gave up on him. She ran away too and built up a bit of an empire for herself after feeling ignored by the men in her life.
Comparing this to the other big-budget action films with Asian leads that came out this year, I can say this film is better than Mortal Kombat (2021) and Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (2021). The action is better. Simu Liu gets better fight scenes and more of them. Lewis Tan in Mortal Kombat is himself a great martial artist, but his skills aren’t featured in the way that Liu is featured here. It’s perhaps unfair because Mortal Kombat is more an ensemble and Tan can feel as if he’s shunted to the side in a film that’s ostensibly centered on him. Henry Golding in Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins suffers similarly. He’s not shunted to the side, but it’s clear that he’s not the great martial artist that Tan is, and the narrative reflects that, which would be fine if the non-action or dramatic stuff were stronger.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy and Short Term 12) is a filmmaker who can handle non-action and dramatic stuff a million times better than the directors of Mortal Kombat and Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins. Shaun has to reconnect with his family and reckon with his history. A lot of the dynamics boil down to tensions between a parent and child, particularly a father and son. Cretton, in that regard, nails that relationship. Cretton captures that dynamic between Shaun and Wenwu. It results in what could arguably be the best father-son fight since The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or the subsequent Return of the Jedi (1983).
My only nitpick is that Wenwu’s motives center around his relationship with Ying Li. Yet, the film never adequately explains why Ying Li would abandon her home for Wenwu. Otherwise, I did appreciate the other supporting actors like Florian Munteanu (Creed II) who plays Razor Fist and Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3 and Gandhi) who reprises his role from Iron Man 3 (2013). This also might be the most fun film I’ve seen all year, outside Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) of which this film reminded me.
Rated PG-13 for violence, action and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 12 mins.