Shang-Chi Review: Mastering Kung-Fu Action, Struggling at Everything Else - VRGyani News and Media

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Monday, August 23, 2021

Shang-Chi Review: Mastering Kung-Fu Action, Struggling at Everything Else

I’m not sure what the general attitude towards Marvel things are right now. On the one hand, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is only the second Marvel film this year and only the third MCU movie since the climactic Avengers: Endgame. And yet it also follows on the heels of four MCU shows (WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and What If…?) to where in 2021 it never feels like Marvel is every really gone, and now it all starts to blend together. And that’s kind of shame because Shang-Chi seeks to do with Asian characters what it did with Black character for Black Panther by putting them at the forefront of the story and making them the heroes for a new generation of moviegoers, especially young viewers who may have never seen the kung fu classics that were a clear influence on Shang-Chi. Destin Daniel Cretton’s film always has its heart in the right place, and when it comes to action, it’s second-to-none in the MCU. However, Shang-Chi also struggles to make its titular hero an individual worth caring about beyond his general affability.

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) has been laying low the past ten years. He was raised by his crime lord father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), who only seeks to amass power and has been able to do so thanks to a pair of mystical bracelets known as “The Ten Rings”. These bracelets have not only bestowed Wenwu with superpowers, but also long life, a life he thought he would spend with his wife Jiang Li (Fala Chen) and their children Shang-Chi and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). However, after Jiang Li’s death, the family fell apart and Shang-Chi went on the run. He now lives as “Shaun” and has a carefree existence with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), but that existence is shattered when assassins working for his father come to steal a necklace that Shang-Chi’s mother gifted to him. Believing that Xialing is also in danger, Shang-Chi heads to Macau with Katy in tow to protect his sister and to also face his destiny.

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When the film gets into its set pieces, it’s really nothing like anything the MCU has attempted thus far. Of course, fans of martial arts cinema will see this as old hat, but Cretton and his stunt team (lead by the late, great Brad Allan) have fused the kineticism and fluidity of classic kung-fu movies with the VFX-laden worlds of Marvel to create something new and exciting. While it’s one thing to adore the works of Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow (there’s even a poster for Kung Fu Hustle hanging in Shang-Chi’s bedroom), neither one of them ever received a Marvel-sized budget and top-of-the-line digital effects to showcase their craft. With a murderer’s row of performing talent at his disposal, Cretton is able to craft exhilarating set piece after exhilarating set piece that kind of puts the rest of the action in the MCU to shame.

It’s almost a little disappointing when the film reaches its third act and gives way to CGI spectacle, not because the VFX are bad, but simply because they’re so commonplace in the MCU that what Shang-Chi really has going for it as a visual language in its set pieces that no other MCU movie can replicate. There will be no shortage of MCU movies in the future (we’re on pace for four per year), but they won’t be able to do what Shang-Chi does, and while the character is destined to cross over to other MCU films, I don’t know if any other filmmaker will be able to take advantage of Liu’s martial arts skills in the way that Cretton does here.

I’ll pause here to say that what Shang-Chi means to me as an MCU fan differs wildly from the Asian audience it’s speaking to. I’ll fully admit that I whiffed it on Mulan (I still think it’s pretty, but I understand where Asian critics are coming from who felt that the film should have had Asian voices behind the camera and a generic script that says more than “honor”), and I want to be careful not to repeat that mistake with Shang-Chi. If you’re an Asian moviegoer, far be it from me to tell you that this story isn’t important or this character doesn’t matter. Obviously, Marvel made this movie for more than just Asian viewers (Disney would like your money no matter your race or ethnicity), but there does seem to be a conscious effort to speak to Asian audiences and give them someone they can cheer for.

However, in this attempt, I feel like Marvel has come up short. The cast is incredibly likable. I hope that it leads all viewers to seek out Leung’s rich body of past work. I like how the film positions Katy as not just comic relief (Awkwafina, unsurprisingly, crushes it) and audience surrogate, but potential love interest for Shang-Chi, although I feel it could go even further in that regard. And I haven’t seen Liu in any other work beyond this, so perhaps he’s a great actor given middling material here, but that’s still a problem because if Shang-Chi does anything, it has to make you care about its protagonist. This is a hero that will keep coming back in the MCU, and it’s an issue that he doesn’t make much of an impact in his own movie.

As the film reached the conclusion of its second act, I couldn’t help but wonder what Shang-Chi’s arc even was here. Eventually the film settles on him accepting the legacy of his parentage with his perfect mother and deeply flawed father (and to the film’s credit, they make Wenwu more interesting than just a power-mad crime boss, but rather someone whose quest for power comes out of fear of being powerless), but even that’s not much of a change for a character who is so broadly sketched. Shang-Chi’s problem is that unlike Black Panther, the character and the world he inhabits are disconnected, so a lot of the movie involves flashbacks to a young Shang-Chi so we can get his backstory and then him discovering the world of the Ten Rings again, but because he’s existed outside of that, it’s hard to see the world reflected in him. That makes Shang-Chi a bit of an anonymous void where Liu’s personality can only do so much to make the hero a compelling character.

The upside of the MCU is that because it’s basically one big TV show, every episode is a new chance to reignite interest a character. Doctor Strange was kind of a dud in Doctor Strange, but he got a new chance in Avengers: Infinity War and suddenly seemed a lot more interesting. Shang-Chi lays the groundwork for a character and a world that’s worth knowing more about, and while I wish the story were stronger and gave Shang-Chi the same chance to shine as films like Black Panther and Captain Marvel did for their protagonists, we’ve only seen the beginning of this character. As a story, it may not be the most audacious start, but as an action film, Shang-Chi is among the finest Marvel has to offer.

Rating: B-

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens only in theaters on September 3rd.



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