Friday, September 3, 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a thrilling adventure

As Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings begins, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is content to spend his days as a parking valet in San Francisco with best buddy Katy (Awkwafina). However, a sudden encounter with a gaggle of powerful gangsters means that Shang-Chi can no longer escape his past. He's not just any parking valet, he's the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of the Ten Rings terrorist organization. Not only that, but Shang-Chi has a lot of pent-up trauma stemming from the loss of his mom, Ying Le (Fala Chen), and his dad's abusive treatment towards himself and his sister Xu Xialing (Meng'er Zhang). An awkward family reunion is in store, one involving the ten magical rings Wenwu wears on his arms.

Intriguingly, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton (David Callaham and Cretton's writing partner Andrew Lanham also penned the script) has ported over to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings his fascination with how people grapple with coming from abusive family dynamics. There may be magical rings factor into the proceedings, but Shang-Chi's personal quest is in tune with the kind of thematic territory Cretton previously explored in Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle. The haunting lyrics "Look into my eyes so you know what it's like/to live a life not knowing what a normal life's like" from the "So You Know What It's Like" scene from Short Term 12 might as well be the thesis statement of Shang-Chi's life. 

Cretton's exploration of this material proves as thoughtful as ever, especially in exploring the messy complexities of interfamilial dynamics, such as Xialing feeling abandoned by her brother after he decided to escape his toxic living situation. Even people who've endured abusive treatment are capable of leaving lasting adverse psychological effects on loved ones. Meanwhile, the true extent of how much Shang-Chi is unfolded through recurring non-linear digressions that make for a thoughtful structural extension of how this character is always opening himself up to the past piecemeal style. A concise prologue just revealing every facet of his past just wouldn't feel right for this guy.

Nicely, Cretton and the other screenwriters also make room for Xialing and Katy to have their own specific arcs that thoughtfully intertwine with the big action set pieces no matter how over-the-top things become. The only real shortcoming of the script is a middle section where Shang-Chi and his two closest allies return home to Wenwu's lair, which kicks off a series of exposition-heavy scenes. The magnetic presence of performers like Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh, both of whom are tasked with much of this dialogue, could instill gravitas into the lyrics of Nickelback's "Rockstar", so it's not the end of the world. Still, more films could take a cue from the prologue of Hellboy II: The Golden Army in finding more visually dynamic ways of conveying expository storytelling material. 

Still, overall the screenplay for Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings is a thoughtfully crafted creation that never loses sight of the distinctly human plights it's hinging everything on. Those make for a great emotional bedrock for the assorted action scenes, which are a delight, especially the more grounded hand-to-hand combat duels. A big skirmish on a city bus kicks things off with a bang thanks to crisp editing and terrific choreography while all the tiny physical comedy details in a fight scene set thousands of feet off the ground. All the fights look so good and exciting that they made me wanna say "See all that stuff in there, Iron Fist? That's why your show never worked!"

Another charm of Shang-Chi is how it oscillates so wildly from over-the-top fight scenes and genre movies elements to return to the more intimate character-driven stuff centered on familial trauma. Despite not being well-versed in the world of summer blockbusters, Cretton proves adept at juggling everything even when it comes time for a climax that tries to mix father/son monologues that could've been lifted from Short Term 12 with a gloriously absurd duel that's like the lovechild of How to Train Your Dragon and Pacific Rim. Part of that's simply down to its commitment to both ingredients, Shang-Chi clearly loves the characters it's dedicated to exploring while it also has an infectious sense of excitement, rather than obligation, surrounding its fantastical material.

The latter material is told through some absurdly gorgeous visuals that don't skimp on the bright colors, as established by a prologue showing the otherworldly domain Ying Le calls home. It's all so gorgeous-looking and I appreciate how often Cretton just lets the visuals do the talking. No need to intrude on a gorgeous scene, like Le and Wenwu fighting/sensually connecting, with ham-fisted dialogue. Even an apocalyptic threat introduced in the climax makes heavy use of bright shades of red and purple. Yay for comic book movies making use of all the vivid hues that their source material never fails to embrace! 

On top of everything else, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings even manages to deliver a superb cast, particularly Simu Liu in a star-making turn as Shang-Chi. In his first-ever film role (discounting a supporting turn in the indie film Women is Losers), Liu's the real deal as a movie star. He has charisma to spare, is effortlessly believable in the fight scenes, and I love his portrayal of Shang-Chi grappling with his complicated feelings towards his father. Awakafina's a treat as Katy, she evokes Tiffany Haddish in Girls' Trip in being enjoyable comic relief but also someone who you can buy as someone you'd want to be friends with. As for Tony Leung as, this guy must be talented, wonder if he's ever done any other notable movies? 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the 25th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but despite coming so deep into this franchise's history, the movie doesn't get by on referencing past MCU entries. What makes Shang-Chi so fun is that you can often even forget that it exists in the same universe as Loki or WandaVision, it all works so well on its own level. Save for some hiccups in navigating expository dialogue and effective green-screen work, director Destin Daniel Cretton has graduated to the leagues of blockbuster filmmaking superbly. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a thrilling yarn about familial strife with lots and lots of thrilling punching. That's the kind of combination I find irresistible and I have a hunch, dear reader, you'll feel the same.

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