By Marc S. Sanders
Marvel’s installment of Shang Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings boasts a good cast and set up for an Asian superhero and his band of allies. I only have one question, couldn’t some of this stuff have waited for the sequel?
Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham wrote an adventurous screenplay for Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy) to direct. It’s fun and frolicking with magnificent action set pieces that take place on an out of control metro bus on the streets of San Francisco (where every out of control vehicle or car chase work best) and later on a high rise scaffolding in Macau. While some sequences easily reveal the CGI work at play, the edited choreography of these martial arts scenes work beautifully.
During the bus sequence, spread eagle jumps and high kicks and low punches by Shang Chi (Simu Liu) are done like a fine dance number as he fights off a gang of thugs who are mysteriously after the pendant he wears around his neck. Comedienne Awkwafina plays Shang’s best friend Katy who rides the bus crazier than Sandra Bullock ever did. Later the pursuit of the MaGuffin pendant leads into a meet up with Shang’s equally capable sister Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and the high-rise scaffolding fight occurs. Marvelous work in both of these scenes. The CGI is certainly forgivable.
After that, the film calms itself down to bridge some exposition that was revealed in the prologue of the film. Shang and Xialing seem to have some parental issues. Their father Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) somehow acquired a set of ten magically powerful rings that he wears on both forearms. Like other rings in fantasy/adventure films, these items take out armies and do nothing but conquer. For once, could these powerful items just make a cup of hot tea or a decent wax job on my car? When Wenwu uncovers a hidden majestic location to take over, he meets and becomes smitten with Ying Li (Fala Chen). They fall in love and you’d think they’d live happily ever after, but if that were the case then there would be no movie.
Beyond what’s described here, not much else mattered to me with this film. The rings might as well have been Thor’s hammer or Captain America’s shield, or a Maltese Falcon. A large, epic and very, very long climactic battle takes place so that one of Hollywood’s better known Asian actresses (Michelle Yeoh) can come into the picture and fight. There’s also a return of a relatively unfavorite character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), the fake out terrorist from Iron Man 3, that pissed off a collection of die hard Marvel geeks yearning for an appearance of the known villain called The Mandarin. Shang Chi reminds us that this once reputably “threatening” villain is named after an orange. Yup! Get over it. He’s as scary as an orange. Moving on! Beyond these appearances, are kaleidoscopes of colorful fantasy creatures like flying serpent dragons and furballs with wings and no face, as well as lion like four legged creatures. Plenty of stuff for Disney/Marvel to merchandise.
I was seeing a story in Shang Chi, and then I wasn’t. The long battle sequence goes on and on and on as a means to show off new toys and stuffed animals for the kids. It all looks very good but it doesn’t lend credence to any storytelling like say in The Lord Of The Rings fare, where an Org could progress a story. Here, it’s all overkill.
The strength of Shang Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings lies in an enthusiastically fun cast and the outstanding martial arts moments that are presented. The fantasy material is too much icing on the cake. The graphics are good and all but couldn’t that fantasy stuff have been held for another film later on perhaps? Go with one thing first and then another thing next, because after a while I forgot what kind of movie I was watching and why.
The cast is fine in their roles. Just fine though. Simu Liu has the athletic build for the title character. He looks sharp in the costumes and fight sequences. Though the fantasy material really takes away from the ranges that we could have appreciated from as an actor. It’s clear this script is not giving him the same rightful opportunities for good super hero acting that was awarded to Robert Downey Jr or Brie Larson. Equally same goes for Tony Leung and Meng’er Zhang. They kind of plain jane. Awakwfina is given the most to play with for the escapist humor as a fun loving karaoke singer and crazy valet driver. Later, she quickly becomes an expert archer. Good stuff there.
Let’s face it the Asian community sect within Hollywood is not as well represented as it should be by now. Box office numbers of the past have more than justified a need for Asian culture to be front and center in mainstream films. There’s been some highlights in the past, most namely with the work of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, and films of merit like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Crazy Rich Asians. It’s pleasing to know that Marvel Comics created a character like Shang Chi back in the late 1970’s. It just wasn’t capitalized back then as a marquee name like the Hulk or Spider-Man. Still, Disney and Marvel could have tried a little bit harder here. Just when I thought we were getting some dimension and checkered past subject matter for Shang Chi and his family to struggle with, Cretton’s film diverts into visual CGI fantasy Candy Land with no depth or substance.
My recommendation on the next installment, is for Marvel and Disney to dig deeper. I know there’s a wealth of storytelling here. So, use a bigger shovel that’ll dig itself all the way to China.