Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings

***1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings
"The centre of Shang Chi is a wuxia picture. A very entertaining one too."

Early in the narration that opens Shang Chi is the phrase "He could have used them for good". As Marvel start to spread the wings of the cinematic universe away from the Avengers that core balance of the responsibilities (and temptations) of powers remain. Those powers are not just the fictional ones connected to the titular ten rings, however, but also the impacts of a multibillion commercial juggernaut.

In much the same way that there's a ninja flick hiding in Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins the centre of Shang Chi is a wuxia picture. A very entertaining one too. The apparatus of Marvel is a much more welcoming structure, if only from familiarity. This extends to each film having a role in the evolution of that extended universe, though here it's slightly undercut by the UK cinematic release being preceded by the first big screen trailer for The Eternals. Knowing what's coming will usually undermine suspense.

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Hanging out in the these films is easy though. There's a good comic tone, much of that on the central chemistry between Simu Liu (Shaun/Shang Chi) and his pal Katy (Awkwafina). They've worked together before in an episode of her TV show, but their rapport throughout is convincing. This helps as it's Shaun/Shang's relationships that drive the plot, though this does include a dead mother.

Director Destin Daniel Chretton has worked with some big names, and inevitably they've got Marvel connections. 2017's The Glass Castle had Woody Harrelson who appeared before cinematic screenings of Shang Chi in the trailer for Venom: Let There Be Carnage and also Brie (Captain Marvel) Larson. She was also in 2019's Just Mercy with Michael B Jordan (Killmonger and Johnny Storm). Chretton shares a writing credit with David Callaham whose previous adaptations include the 2005 Doom movie and the 2014 Godzilla, but it's probably the wise-cracking action of The Expendables that best represents the tone here. Frequent Chretton collaborator Andrew Lanham also pens, but as with any Marvel picture there's doubtless been other inputs.

Those include appearances from other parts, and not just in the first scene during the credits. Benedict Wong reprises his role from Doctor Strange, opening the door (or at least a sling ring portal) to the wider MCU. The organisation known as The Ten Rings has appeared before in the Iron Man titles, and the way the film chooses to integrate that is a treat.

Tony Leung is the leader of The Ten Rings, wielder of those mysterious artefacts that may have come from a meteor or a tomb. In a polyglot picture with large stretches of subtitled dialogue he's part of an excellent international cast. In addition to Michelle Yeoh it includes a début (of sorts) for Meng'er Zhang, a stage actress (and former TV singing contest participant) who answered a call for women who could speak both Mandarin and English.

There's a clear eye on the Chinese market. While a battle on a bus is sufficiently San Franciscan that it's live-streamed by a character played by TV's Zach Cherry, later set pieces are far more firmly in the Wuxia tradition. There's a sequence early on that reminded me of Hero, but there's plenty of wire work and an establishing shot of a skyscraper surrounding by scaffolding promises something that is then well delivered. The various fight choreographies across multiple styles are a delight. There are leaf swirling, Ten-Ring-triggered telekinetic thumpings, moments of comic combat that recall Jackie Chan. Many fights are cut around exchanges, almost equivalent to rallies in tennis, and that helps them connect, both emotionally and physically. There are also things that look like bowcasters in a battle that almost feels like the Gungans again, but I might have been primed to that by other Disney references.

Established patterns for Marvel mass battles where moments of melee cut to character confrontations and plot paths are present. The action is pretty clear throughout, though the transitions between the choreographed and the computer-aided are usually only apparent because people can't actually do some of the things we see. Nor, probably, could dragons, but needs must.

The references to wider Marvel are numerous, from the snap/blip to cameos from a variety of characters. There's a song from Aladdin, an expository frieze of sculpted wood, dragon scale armour and a ludicrous electric BMW. It has been established that the Bond films exist as media within the MCU and elements of the Macau fight recall the one in Skyfall. Shang Chi also suggests that Armageddon exists (or at least its soundtrack) so we will have to see what minor characters nod to that in future.

The Marvel-ness extends past the language choices to visual ones. Not for the first time, climactic battles appear to be between the forces of teal and the forces of orange. Though seen in 2D, one does wonder when and where 3D was going to be sprinkled in, and some scenes are physically dark. There are a couple of moments where the style seems less wuxia than kaiju, and while the film is often tonally light many scenes are relatively dark, if not wet and muddy.

At over two hours it could have dragged, but it's so often personable and so frequently amusing that it whips by. Its willingness to pass the baton of comic relief between characters (and creatures) keeps it light, but the evolution of its interlocking revenge plots keeps it compelling. There are points where it does get a bit hero's journey, when Campbell was talking about monomyth I don't think he realised Disney would treat it as an acquisition strategy. It's something only really picked up in retrospect, however, at the time audiences are carried along with aplomb. We're told at the very end that The Ten Rings will return, and that will be a call worth picking up.

Reviewed on: 09 Sep 2021
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Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings packshot
Shang-Chi, the master of unarmed weaponry-based Kung Fu, is forced to confront his past after being drawn into the Ten Rings organisation.

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Writer: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham

Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Ben Kingsley, Meng'er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh

Year: 2021

Runtime: 132 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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