Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Written by: Destin Daniel Cretton, Dave Callaham, and Andrew Lanham
Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung
The best martial arts films are often like the best musicals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings movie does not disappoint. Most of them have a story of some kind, but it’s usually the simplest part of the film. Instead, like musicals, they rely on beautiful cinematography, charismatic characters, and precisely timed choreography. Unlike musicals, however, extras do not break out in song and dance, but in bare fisted violence.
There are few films that quite delight me like a good martial arts film, which is why I looked upon Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings with excitement. I’ll confess that I also found the more recent Marvel installments wanting. I wasn’t taken with any of their Disney+ shows, and Black Widow felt less like a work of vision and more like an item to be checked off a list. However, it was in the vision of Shang-Chi movie creative team that I found myself delighted by a Marvel Studios film once again.
Shang-Chi and the legeng of the Five Rings greatest features
One of Shang-Chi’s best features is how loudly and proudly its creative team (Director Destin Daniel Cretton and co-writers Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham) wears its influences on its sleeve. In an opening sequence that takes us through a storm of arrows and a dizzying fight in a bamboo forest, we can see the influences of Zhang Yimou films like Hero or House of Flying Daggers. When we later move to an action sequence set in San Francisco, the works of Jackie Chan come to mind. Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) even delivers Chan’s iconic catchphrase: “I don’t want any trouble!”
But as fun as it was to notice these references, they would only be fun if they were in service to a quality film. Thankfully, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings story quality is enough to stand on its own. Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is an endearing and earnest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, buoyed by his connections to two very strong female characters; Katy (Awkwafina) his childhood friend, and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), his sister. Together, the three of them unite in order to reach Shang-Chi and Xialing’s father, the villainous Mandarin, Wenwu (Tony Leung).
It’s through Leung that the film’s strongest element takes shape. Leung has a movie star’s charisma that burns through every frame of his screen time. When he is on screen, we can’t help but be captivated by him. As he explains his villainous plot to his children, a plot he no doubt developed in the thralls of madness, his children want to believe him. And as an audience, we do too.
Of course, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not a perfect film. It makes the same mistake many other Marvel Cinematic Universe films do: breaking up otherwise dramatic scenes with out-of-place humor. Moments of genuine emotional captivation are sometimes ruined by a gag or sarcastic comment. If it were more confident in the strengths of its story, Shang-Chi would allow these moments to play out straight faced, rather than resorting to another joke to play off its sincerity.
Shang-Chi And the Legend of the Five Rings merits
The Shang-Chi movie merits greatly outweigh its flaws. It takes the best elements of martial arts cinema, mixes them with the tried-and-true MCU formula, and produces a work that respects the legacy of martial arts cinema before it while creating something fresh for mainstream audiences.