The latest Marvel movie, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” is a rollicking, adventurous … wait, this is a Marvel movie?
It is indeed, and all the better for not being necessarily immediately recognizable as such. Shang-Chi is an intriguing character, but definitely less well-known than the members of the Avengers team who get their own spinoff films. This works to the film’s advantage, which, until the required chaotic ending, feels less like a Marvel movie and more like a fascinating standalone epic.
It’s gloriously free (mostly) of the Iron Man/Captain America/Black Widow/Captain Marvel cycle of stories and integrated plotlines, working on its own with just occasional touches of Marvel Cinematic Universe required elements along the way.
Who cares what kind of movie it is? It’s simply a good one, the most culturally specific film in the MCU since the best of them all, “Black Panther.” It offers a welcome depiction of Asian culture and casting not typically seen in a big-budget Hollywood movie — certainly not in a Marvel movie.
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It’s a blast.
Best friends Katy (Awkwafina) and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) park cars for a living until they get embroiled in a mystical adventure in “Shang-Chi.”
Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) lives in San Francisco, parking cars for a living, not going anywhere in life and not particularly unhappy about that. His best friend Katy (Awkwafina, invaluable) works with him and is similarly unmotivated.
Until one day on a bus, when out of the blue assassins attack Shang-Chi. Even more out of the blue, in a beautifully choreographed fight scene, Shang-Chi bests them.
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A quick aside to note that the schlub who reveals a secret skill is maybe my second-favorite kind of movie character. The first is the schlub who doesn’t even know he has the skill and finds out along with everyone else when cornered.
But Shang-Chi knows, and therein lies the story.
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He is the son of Wenwu (the legendary Tony Leung), a thousand-year-old villain who possesses the 10 rings of the title that make him immortal and, as an unfortunate side effect, power mad. (Wenwu is an update of the stereotypical Mandarin character in Marvel comics.)
But when Wenwu meets, and fights, Jiang Li (Fala Chen) in what is bound to be the most romantic martial-arts meet cute in movie history, he gives up the bad-guy game. They raise two children, Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).
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But Wenwu’s lengthy, brutal past catches up to him and he reverts to his old ways. Shang-Chi eventually escapes and lands in the U.S. That’s where we first catch up with him, but Wenwu wants him back. And Wenwu is used to getting what he wants.
Eventually, Shang-Chi, Katy and Xialing all end up at Wenwu’s compound in China, where he reveals what he’s up to: He believes Li is trapped in the magical village where she grew up. Wenwu wants Shang-Chi to help him rescue her.
Li’s sister Ying Nan (the great Michelle Yeoh — the cast really is stellar) doesn’t buy it.
And here’s where the Marvel of it all kicks in. Of course, there has to be an apocalyptic CGI battle in the last act If it’s not written into the contracts of Marvel screenwriters, it’s obviously a tacit agreement.
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The ‘Shang-Chi’ cast includes Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh
True, most of those battles don’t involve dragons going at each other. And like all of the action in director Destin Daniel Cretton’s film, the climactic showdown is more artfully choreographed than most. But it’s still just a big giant fight. Even “WandaVision” wasn’t spared such theatrics, pun intended.
Luckily this isn’t a deal-breaker. The preceding action, along with the strength of the cast, ensures that. While Shang-Chi is the hero of the film, Liu’s performance is the most muted of the major cast members (with the exception of Zhang’s, but only because she isn’t given nearly enough to do).
It’s great to see Awkwafina not only crack wise but try her hand at being a kinda-sorta action star, too. But as with most films they’re in, Leung and Yeoh capture your attention whenever they’re on screen. Leung in particular has a complex role. He is a straight-up butcher, but he is capable of love. And revenge. Leung, never overplaying, always measured, makes you believe that. Fully.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” certainly isn’t the typical MCU entry. That’s part of its appeal.