Shang-Chi movie review: A potential fan favourite of MCU Phase 4
It’s all predictable, to a large extent, but also quite enjoyable, regardless of whether Asian martial arts are your thing or not.
castSimu Liu, Awkwafina, Fala Chen, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh
directorDestin Daniel Cretton
Daniel Destin Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s return to Indian theatres, whirrs into top gear with an explosive set-piece early on aboard a San Francisco bus, when Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) are attacked by a group of assassins led by a man with a machete for an arm. The scene itself is equal parts Speed and Rumble in the Bronx: Jackie Chan-like improvisational combat (the film’s fight coordinator Andy Cheng has worked with Chan on several films), slapstick humour and, well, the high-stakes precariousness of an out-of-control bus.
Like Steve Rogers’s epic extended foot-chase from the first act of Captain America: The First Avenger, this extended action sequence had a lot riding on it. It was a question of showing audiences what the new superhero in town is capable of, as well as setting the visual grammar for the franchise, to an extent. In Steve Rogers’ case, we are immediately in awe of the man’s Olympian physicality and his sheer will to keep fighting, and these are indeed the twin pillars of his character from that point on, arguably till the very end.
Thankfully for Shang-Chi, Simu Liu (from the much-loved Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience, an asymmetric-thinking choice for the role) passes the test with more than a touch of flair. The setup might have been Chan (and like Chan, Liu is just really easy to like), but Liu also turns it up several notches as the scene progresses, lighting up the screen with the kind of balletic brutality you might associate with a Donnie Yen.
This after an extended prologue sets up the story with familiar Marvel beats: Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu (Tony Leung) is the immortal, all-conquering leader of a powerful criminal organisation called the Ten Rings, after the eponymous magical rings Wenwu wears on his hands, bestowing immortality and making him nigh invincible in combat. In search of the mystical realm/pocket dimension of Ta Lo, Wenwu meets and falls in love with Jiang Li (Fala Chen), the only person who defeats him in single combat, thanks to mad skills and some magic of her own, magic that she draws off the realm itself.
Their eventually tragic love story and the fallout therein forms the emotional and moral centre of Shang-Chi and establishes Tony Leung’s Wenwu as one of Marvel’s most compelling, layered villains. Leung’s doleful eyes (think Wong-Kar Wai’s In the Mood For Love) are every bit as effective as his ease with the kind of wuxia-meets-kung-fu martial arts style Shang-Chi uses liberally here. Indeed, one of Leung’s (relatively) underappreciated collaborations with Wong-Kar Wai, The Grandmaster (2013), had Leung playing the role we generally associate with Donnie Yen: the Wing Chun master Ip Man.
Marvel heroes must confront, in no particular order, the sins of the father, genocide-level extinction events and prolonged adolescence. It’s the blockbuster cocktail they seldom stray significantly from, and Shang-Chi is no different: Simu Liu goes through the stages of Marvel heroism with an infectious amiability and dramatic chops (though curiously, the sitcom star’s comedy is merely competent here). Awkwafina as Katy hogs the comedic beats but also extracts value from them with her now-familiar energetic, extroverted style (her Hotel California gag here is classic Marvel tomfoolery). Hong Kong cinema legend Michelle Yeoh does her bit in a sparkling, Yoda-like cameo in the third act, as Jiang Nan, aunt to Shang-Chi and Xu Xialing, one of the elders of Ta Lo.
It’s all predictable, to a large extent, but also quite enjoyable, regardless of whether Asian martial arts are your thing or not. I will say this, though: the Ten Rings themselves are an intriguing (and some would argue, overdue) addition to Marvel’s combat style. Wenwu and Shang-Chi control them with their minds as well as their fists, and while this makes things Shang-Chi more VFX-dependent than most martial arts films, the spectacle is worth it. I would like to see some more old-school action, too, and there are several Asian martial arts stars Marvel could recruit in that context as the franchise progresses: Donnie Yen, Iko Uwais, Tony Jaa, Joe Taslim and so on.
Shang-Chi will, inevitably, be compared to Black Panther, not just because of the thematic similarities but also what the two movies stand for in terms of representation. Asian-American fans will certainly appreciate the fact that their lives haven’t been depicted with the kind of twee sentimentality that big-ticket movies so often have. And it’s clear that direction Cretton has a deep affection for all the various strands of Asian commercial cinema this movie draws from — kung fu, wuxia, even something a lot like kaiju in the last act.
One hopes, though, that Shang-Chi’s sequels will branch out into more original territory in terms of moral dilemmas. They have a winner on their hands with Liu, but he needs to be given the same narrative leeway that Marvel has given characters like Thor or Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch. If that happens, Shang-Chi could well become one of the fan favourites for Phase Four.
Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will release in Indian theatres on 3 September.
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