Review: ‘Shang Chi and the Ten Rings’

Simu Liu, Awkwafina and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung star in an action-adventure, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. 

The best Marvel movie yet, Shang Chi and the Ten Rings is a grand Chinese adventure, coming from an unexpected source: director Destin Daniel Cretton. 

Initially known for his directorial debut, Short Term 12, which showcased a breakout role by Brie Larson, Cretton’s subsequent films were fine but unremarkable (The Glass Castle, Just Mercy). Cretton bursts out here with a strong family drama, which plays well to his past strengths, tethered to more conventional Marvel tropes, which have been dialed way down for much of the movie. 

Oh, it’s a Marvel movie, no doubt about it. Now that we’re two feature films into the so-called ‘Phase IV’ of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe — which cannot help but remind me of Saul Bass’ Phase IV (1974), in which ants rise up against humans, portending an unexpectedly apocalypse — and, after the somewhat lackluster Black Widow, which felt like a good-faith effort to offer a slightly different perspective on the usual, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings actually feels fresh and new, despite the occasional, patented tip-offs to remind viewers that we are still in the good old Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

The good parts are very good indeed, and more than make up for the occasional missteps, which, truth be told, feel more like responses to corporate prodding than miscalculations on the part of Cretton. After a prologue that establishes the looming threat posed by Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his best buddy Katy (Awkwafina) are introduced as millennial slackers in San Francisco. They are happy to work as parking valets, since it pays for their partying at night. They are likewise happy to eschew any thought of greater responsibilities and, apparently, harbor no greater ambitions for their lives. 

One day, their idyllic lifestyle comes to a jarring end when Shang-Chi’s awesome, heretofore hidden mystical powers emerge on a city bus in response to an attack by people with wildly destructive mystical powers. Awakening his natural instincts, Shang-Chi becomes a hero, but loses a valuable pendant, leading him and Katy on a fantastic journey that involves time, space, family, and control of the universe. 

The film works especially well, I think, for those who are grounded to some extent in Asian action and adventure films. It’s tempting, for example, to compare it to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, especially since an early action scene is set amidst a sea of swaying bamboo trees. (Of course, Ang Lee drew from Taiwanese action pictures himself.) Later action, featuring interpersonal battle between participants on city streets and buildings, is quite reminiscent of classic Hong Kong action films of the late 1980s and 90s. More recent, expansive Mainland Chinese adventures appear to set the pattern for certain stretches of the action involving soldiers aplenty. 

These and other touchstones, however, serve only to enhance a strong family drama, which begins when Shang-Chi searches out his sister, Jiang Li (Fala Chen). What drew them apart? What happened to their mother? What is the deal with their father, Wenwu?

Family is the overarching theme of the movie, which gives the action sequences the kick in the gut that’s needed to make them truly meaningful. And much of the dramatic impact comes from the brooding performance by Tony Chiu-Wai Leung as the father figure who doesn’t quite figure. 

He’s a stern daddy who wants to teach his children to do the right thing, when all they want to do is play. He expects them to come to heel as adults, do as he says, and then keep on doing it. This is a father who thinks he knows best. 

I think we can probably all relate to that, to some extent, or at least relate to the ideas and experiences of those whose fathers pressured them to conform to some imagined ideal. The tightening pressure fuels the film to a satisfying conclusion. 

The film opens exclusively in theaters on September 3, via Disney. For more information about the film, visit the official site.