Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings review – Finally, some visible action!

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings review – Finally, some visible action!

Growing up, I watched a ton of martial arts movies. I was a Chan Fan* ever since he made a splash stateside with Rumble in the Bronx, the trailers for which touted that Jackie Chan was the one action star who does all his own stunts. I was a bit spoiled by Mr. Chan, however, because his movies are very choreography-forward. He’s doing crazy stuff and he wants us to see it. Every punch, kick, and application of a sweatshirt as a defense mechanism must be visible. Cuz really, if you’re making an action movie where the action isn’t visible, what the hell is the point?

Ever since Captain America: Civil War, the MCU has had a severe action problem**. The supposed culprit is scheduling — meaning that getting a roster of busy superstars together for fight rehearsal is a pretty tall order — but at any rate, the result is atrocious. Whenever two super dupers get into it, a shaky camera and rapid fire editing make sure that we can’t see how much  rehearsal they didn’t do. Few things suck me out of a movie as efficiently as this. An action movie where you can’t see the action is like a comedy movie where every performer has their back to the camera. I hate it I hate it I hate it. So when I heard that the next MCU movie was going to be a martial arts extravaganza, I was nervous that it would just be more of the same.

But guess what. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings features fisticuffs that you can actually see!! The action, on both a small and large scale, looks fantastic. The Chan Fan in me is extremely pleased.

And so is the Wuxia fan, the John Wick fan, the John Woo, and the Timo Tjahjanto fan (it’s not bloody, but you get it). Shang-Chi melds multiple styles of cinematic martial arts into a giant, multi-genre action movie, while introducing an exciting new character to the universe.

His name is, you guessed it, Shang-Chi, but for the purposes of his normie life, we can just call him Shaun (Simu Liu). Shaun is a valet driver with no family to speak of, happy to collect a paycheck and then go do some karaoke with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). It’s a regular life, but he’s content. Same goes for Katy, despite pressures from her family to aspire higher. Then one day, a bunch of toughs show up and demand that Shaun hand over a pendant given to him by his long-deceased mother. Shaun refuses, and then proceeds to kick the entirety of the shit out of every last one of them, much to the surprise of Katy and everyone else on the city bus where this battle occurs (it’s an exceptional set-piece). Lo and behold, Shaun is a wildly skilled martial artist with six-pack abs and incredible strength, and his mysterious past is finally calling upon him to use his talents. It’s too much plot to get into here, but all you need to know is that Shaun and Katy are now headed to China to figure out what’s what. Before long THE FATE OF THE ENTIRE WORLD RESTS ON THEIR SHOULDERS. Also there are underground fight clubs, magical villages, dragons, and cat-monsters.

While the imagery employed does suffer from the digital messiness of these latter-era MCU entries (it’s confounding that these movies aren’t getting better looking with time), it’s applied in such a way here to feel painterly. The more fantastical imagery is  drawn from Eastern art and folkore, so its rendered nature tends to work more than it doesn’t. The design is novel enough that it paves over any visual lapses. What I mean to say is that unlike some more recent MCU entries, the seams don’t announce themselves, and when they are visible, they don’t distract.

As we move into the next wave of Marvel movies, it’s going to be interesting to see how we get away from the core group of characters and into a new Avengers roster. It simply must be done (also Iron Man is dead), and it’s going to be difficult to capture lightning in a bottle a second time around. Watching Shang-Chi, I was struck with how strong a character our titular hero is. He’s got a great personality, a great presence, and a heck of a sense of humor (he and Katy are fantastic together – very very funny). I get the sense that he’s going to mesh well with Avengers old and new, and may even take up a leadership position amongst them. I look forward to this. It’s amazing how much I grew to care about the character over the course of a single film, especially since Shang-Chi is a character that I was mostly unfamiliar with going in. We’ve had two movies worth of Captain Marvel and I don’t feel like I know her yet, but Shang-Chi grabbed me like Tony Stark did way back in Phase One, and he did it without being a Tony Stark clone.

Another pleasant surprise within Shang-Chi is all of the, well, surprises. This movie marks the first time in a long time that cameos and plot novelties carried much weight.*** While I shan’t spoil what happens and who appears, I will say that the writers took the representative opportunity afforded to them by their first leading Asian superhero to dip into previous material that was left unfinished. Even so, it’s got a lighter feel to it in terms of overall connective plot material, and instead focuses on character. It’s a smart move as we move toward a multiverse. It’s going to be an onslaught of plot, most of which won’t really matter, and although 100% of my predictions of when superhero fatigue would set in have been wrong, I’d imagine that this is where a lot of folks might get off the ride. It’s smart to get some fresh new characters into the mix.

There’s not much to say about MCU movies anymore. You know whether or not you’re going to see it already. Me? I’m on the hook for these things until they end or I die, so all I can offer as a critic is whether or not this is one of the very good ones. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of the good ones. I was admittedly a little nervous about Phase Four (is it Phase Four? I’ve lost track), but my concerns have been abated.

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

Written by Destin Daniel Cretton, Dave Callahan, Andrew Lanham, Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin

Starring Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Michelle Yeoh

RatedPG-13, Runtime 132 minutes

*The phrase “Chan Fan” was coined by Wings character, Antonio Scarpacci (Tony Shalhoub), in describing his video rental habits, and I want you to know that.

**Endgame did not have this problem, to be fair.

***Endgame also did not have this problem.

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