‘Shang-Chi’ Review: Great Martial Arts and Iffy CGI
There are a lot of unknowns in this life, but there’s one thing I’m certain of: Any movie where Michelle Yeoh has a line like “We are sworn to protect the Realm!” can’t be all that bad.
Unfortunately, the latest Marvel picture, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, isn’t all that good either. It has a few martial-arts sequences that are terrific, features an outstanding turn from Awkwafina, and has no shortage of cool-looking costumes and props. But I am afraid to report that, at a fundamental level, this movie lumbers along with a weighted-down plot obsessed with backstory. The lack of forward momentum leaves you wondering “Gee, when the heck is this movie actually going to start”? When it does, it’s another sludgy-looking CGI-fest with a big portal.
But let’s focus on the positive, which is the first half of the movie. In a prologue we meet Tony Leung’s Wenwu, a warrior king who leads an army called the Ten Rings. They have this name because Wenwu also has a nifty set of rings (more like bracelets) that function as an all-purpose source of fighting power. Basically, they ensure that you don’t want to mess with Wenwu.
And for a thousand years, no one does, until he tries to breach an enchanted forest to find a mysterious place called Ta-Lo. Guarding it is Jiang Li (Fala Chen), who fights Wenwu in the “Oh, they can fly now?” manner found in classic wuxia films. Their battle quickly turns into a dance and ... well, they fall in love and have kids.
One of those kids turns out to be our hero: Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), only now he’s calling himself Shaun, living in a converted garage in San Francisco and working as a parking valet. We’ll eventually learn he’s doing this in an attempt to avoid his fate as an assassin while hanging out with his best pal, the jokester Katy, played by Awkwafina.
Awkwafina’s Katy is not just a desperately needed blast of fresh air for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she’s one of the finest spins on the “damsel in distress” since Margot Kidder in the original Superman. Comedy is subjective, but anyone who doesn’t enjoy her loud, explosive reactions during moments of superhero peril just doesn’t know how to have a good time. What’s great is that she isn’t just a helpless Olive Oyl, she grows to help her buddy and, in turn, save the world.
Ah, yes, about that. You see, Shang-Chi’s destiny catches up with him in San Francisco (on a bus, no less!) and he ends up at a “dark web” fight club casino in Macau. There he is reunited with his sister Xialing, played by Meng'er Zhang. Whereas Shang-Chi was trained to become a fighter in their father’s image, she mirrored his moves in private.
There’s a really nifty action sequence dangling out of a Macau skyscraper, but in time they end up back with Dad, who has let grief over the death of the siblings’ mother get the best of him. He’s cornered them because they each have charmed pendants, and when these stones are placed into the eyes of a dragon statue, he will learn how to enter Ta-Lo, where he believes he can rescue his late wife.
He’s being manipulated by a malevolent force, of course, and unless the children can stop him he will open a portal that will ... ugh, portals? More portals? Marvel loves portals, don’t they.
The big battle at the end is set amidst the Oz-like wonder of Ta-Lo, replete with mystical beasts. One of them, I must confess, is very cute. It’s like a furry Thanksgiving turkey with iridescent wings, named Morris. But what’s annoying is that the final 30 minutes of the movie is shot with a grey smudgy sheen that drains all energy off the screen. There is an extended fight scene between two dragons that, on paper, sounds awesome, but is visually incoherent and just plain ugly. It’s among the worst third acts in any Marvel movie.
Adding to this, unfortunately, is the non-stop parade of flashbacks that add nothing to Shang-Chi or Xialing’s character. Luckily, I was wearing a mask in the theater so not too many people heard me muttering “Yeah, yeah, we get it,” as the script hammered in another nail of alleged dramatic motivation. As for Shang-Chi himself, Simu Liu is certainly very handsome, but the character is extremely serious and somewhat inert. There’s only so much Awkwafina can do to liven things up.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is ultimately a mixed bag. But to its credit, it isn’t too tied-in with other Marvel movies, and mostly stands on its own. I also recognize that this is a genre with kids and teens in mind first. For Asian and Asian-American families, this entire production may resonate on a frequency to which I am not necessarily attuned. (A short multi-generational scene at Katy’s home is just terrific.) Representation in mainstream, four-quadrant blockbusters is important, so something like this is a long time coming. And I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say the characters introduced here are certain to be back.