Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Notable Cast: Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, Yuen Wah, Florian Munteanu, Andy Le
As a fan of martial arts cinema since I was, oh I don’t know, born, the recent obsession with the genre has been a roller coaster ride for me. A large part of me never expected that Hollywood or the American TV market would embrace the genre as it has in the last half of a decade. Whether it is shows like Warrior and the reimagined Kung Fu or Hollywood blockbusters like Snake Eyes and Raya and the Last Dragon, this latest boom is a welcome change of pace and to see mainstream audiences cheer for and consume one of my favorite and oft-maligned styles of filmmaking couldn’t make me happier.
It’s not that cinematic martial arts on the screen doesn’t go in waves, it does. Anyone old enough to remember will note that it usually pops up every 20 years or so, with the last pop coming in the late 90s and early 00s with the arrival of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and The Matrix (fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping) in Hollywood. What makes this latest boom so fascinating is the arrival of the latest Marvel film, their 25th of the MCU if I’m counting properly, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Not only is Shang-Chi a film that attempts to bring the newest kung fu craze to the world’s biggest franchise, but it’s one that sincerely wants to adapt - and sell, this is Disney after all - Chinese martial arts, culture, and their cinematic history to a wider western audience. It’s a film that often tries to rectify so many of the mistakes made by the original Shang-Chi comic, a cringe-worthy series at best, and thrust its audience into a mystical world of Chinese lore (made up or adapting popular elements) while retaining that now formulaic Marvel brand. The combination is thrilling, fun, dynamic, and most importantly heartfelt. I might be biased thanks to my love of kung fu cinema, but this is easily the best Marvel film to date.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings adheres to the Marvel formula with a tried-and-true focus, delivering on all of the elements that fans (and most of the world) expect. The film features an origin story of the titular character, played by Simu Liu, whose carefree life with his best friend Katy, played by Disney’s new go-to comedic relief Awkwafina, is torn out of the balance by his father, Wenwu. He must leave his charming and under-the-radar existence to head back to China and face his father, the leader of the terrorist organization The Ten Rings, and stop him from breaking down a dimensional barrier that would unleash hell on Earth.
Yes, it’s a film about a powerful individual with parental issues that has to save the world from a daunting outside threat, all while learning about who he is, quipping his way through escalating battles, and finally reaching his potential in a CGI heavy finale featuring a team-up of heroes. It’s strongly balanced between easy-to-consume drama, some charming bits of comedy, and plenty of fantastical action. For the Marvel fans or those who hate it, this is once again a film par for the course in hitting the expected beats. Disney has a blueprint that works to hit the widest swath of movie-goers and Shang-Chi rarely deviates from it.
The difference is, hold on - let me roll this blueprint up and throw it in the corner, that unlike the misfire that was Black Widow earlier this year, Shang-Chi feels like it has creative backing that gives a shit in getting its audience to care about its characters, the world, and the genre it’s adapting into the formula. My complaint about Black Widow remains (and you’re welcome to read about it HERE) that it was supposed to be an espionage film that sacrifices the genre tropes to fit the blueprint, but with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings the two smoothly meld together to deliver the usual Marvel fare with a love and adoration in getting kung fu and wuxia elements onto the big screen for its audience. This makes it feel, dare I say it, completely refreshing.
To this point, it’s necessary to give director Destin Daniel Cretton credit for navigating the task of trying to avoid all of the Asian stereotypes as he layers in the cultural aspects of the world that Shang-Chi exists in. The predominately Asian cast is a massive key to this and having the studio back it by snagging some substantial talent adds to the film’s ability to make those choices. Simu Liu ably leans into the title hero role here, both as the “regular guy who might be the chosen one” and as the well-trained kung fu assassin. As mentioned, Awkwafina provides the best friend and comedic relief, and the rest of the cast is anchored by some incredible new and classic talent.
Of the more modern talent, it should be notable that both Meng’er Zhang, as the sister Xialing, and Fala Chen, as the mother Li, play pivotal roles in the world and both are characters treated with the utmost respect. For a film built on familial bonds and breaks, they often steal moments throughout and I would be lying if I said that the wuxia inspired fight sequence built as a romantic dance between Chen and Leung during the opening wasn’t the best sequence in the film. Yet, it’s notable how the film treats their characters and actively strives to remove itself from too many Asian stereotypes for them.
On the other hand, Shang-Chi also gives room for some true icons of the genre and Chinese and Hong Kong cinema in general. Tony Leung steals the film, as expected, as Wenwu, slathering the character in a nuanced performance that makes the audience understand his plight, even if they won’t agree with its world-ending outcomes. He’s not the only classic Chinese actor to grace the film either. Michelle Yeoh shows up to deliver wuxia, Tai Chi, and Wing Chun influenced wisdom in the third act and a surprise cameo from iconic martial arts and stuntman Yuen Wah bumped this film up an easy half-star for knowing its audience.
However, while the stunning cast and fascinating story that blends modern cinema with traditional Chinese cinematic elements are both fantastic, the proverbial one-inch punch that sets this film above the rest of the MCU is the action. Brad Allen, may he rest in peace after passing away in early August, is an incredible 2nd unit director, stunt coordinator, and fight choreographer. His addition to this film can be felt in every fight and battle sequence. His ability to blend Hollywood and Hong Kong is impressive, definitely influenced by his early career as part of the Jackie Chan stunt team. Whether it’s the real world meets kung fu fight on the bus which was heavily used in the marketing, the one-on-one fight highlight of the film when Shang-Chi takes on the Death Dealer with daggers in the neon and glass-filled world of Macau, or the brash fantasy battle of the finale, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the best action that the MCU has ever (and probably WILL EVER) see. It’s filmed with long takes, framed to show the action, and uses the fun setting to deliver fast-moving stunts.
With the film crushing the Labor Day box office, it’s heartwarming to see the US audience warmly embrace a film like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Sure, it’s a film that still fits comfortably into the Marvel structure so it’s easy to consume, but it’s the first step in getting a more mainstream audience to see why martial arts films, wuxia, and traditional kung fu cinema are their own art form to be respected rather than mocked for its treatment throughout the years. As a fan of that idea, even if Shang-Chi was a mediocre film, I’d praise it for trying to leverage its influence to introduce others to the world. Yet, it’s not mediocre. It’s a film built on love and respect for the genre, but still executes its superhero tale with the highest quality pieces.
See what happens when a studio allows filmmakers to work in the system but add their own love and influences to the mix?
Written By Matt Reifschneider