SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS— 4 STARS
Filled with reverberating truisms pillar to post, there’s a notion ithin the cinematic tome of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings that I gravitated to keenly. Our emerging hero is instructed to essentially lead with his breath. The air moving in and out of those lungs can carry words or merely the respiratory exchanges that pace the pulses of the characters in question.
Even if the advice is only spoken for a moment amid flurries of exposition and martial arts melee, neither versions of those breaths feel wasted in this new Marvel Studios entry. And does this movie ever breathe! In this sensational origin story, we gulp and we gasp with every kinetic huff and puff of our heroes and villains embroiled in turmoil and combat. I, for one, dig that simplistic focus on the voluntary and involuntary ways Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings draws in its oxygenated energy.
We meet our titular hero, played by Canadian TV actor Simu Liu, before any costumes or magic residing in San Francisco under the name of “Shaun.” He moves through life as an unassuming hotel car valet hanging out and gleaning off the immigrant family of his best friend Katy, played by The Farewell’s Awkwafina. When Shaun uncorks his remarkable fighting abilities to defend and rescue the passengers of a city bus (hilariously streamed by Zach Cherry’s social media influencer Clev), he reveals a big bit of who he really is.
Shang-Chi is the son of the now-ancient Wenwu (Hong Kong legend Tony Leung Chiu-wai), the wielder of ten magical rings that grant him power, immortality, and symbolize his covert control of the fabled Ten Rings organization that has been in play within the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Iron Man in 2008. The son and his younger sister Xialing (newcomer Meng’er Zhang) are products of a whimsical courtship between the conquering Wenwu and the ethereal guardian Jiang Li (Fala Chen of HBO’s The Undoing). From a young age, Wenwu strictly raised and painfully trained Shang-Chi to be his eventual heir and the greatest assassin of his league while pushing Xialing aside to an antiquated women’s place. When Shang-Chi reached 15 years old, he refused to become a killer, denied his father, and fled to America.
LESSON #1: ESCAPING OR EMBRACING FAMILY LEGACIES— In the decade since, Shang-Chi has been running away from adulthood as much as his childhood. Likewise, Xialing voyeuristically taught herself the martial arts she was denied and made her escape to a more dangerous life. By the time Shang-Chi meets his aunt Jiang Nan (the sageous Michelle Yeoh) later in the movie, her assessment of “You are a product of all that came before you– the light and the dark,” typifies the need for both of Wenwu’s children to stop hiding and use their gifts for something serious.
All of this pressing personal urgency pushes all involved into thwarting Wenwu’s cataclysmic quest to infiltrate the hidden magical realm of Ta Lo and release the demonic scourges barred within that speak in his head about saving his late wife. Each ensuing confrontation and pursuit expands with rousing stunt work from supervising coordinator Bud Allen (Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World) and exemplary fight choreography from coordinators Andy Cheng (the Rush Hour series) and Guillermo Grispo (300, Wonder Woman). The kinetic escalation matches the increasing production scope constructed by production designer Sue Chan (Colossal) and the thick visual effects supervised by Christopher Townsend (Captain Marvel). The movements and spaces of this movie are truly thrilling.
That’s all the showy stuff. The true might of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings can be found in its proverbial chest underneath any bold uniforms and glowing powers. Director/writer Destin Daniel Crettin, known best for the exceptional Short Term 12, and co-writers Dave Callaham (Mortal Kombat) and Andrew Lanham (Just Mercy) toughened this blockbuster with punches to the heart as much as, if not more than, punches to the face. Imbuing spirit and mettle, some of the highest seen in a Marvel movie, is one of Crettin’s well-praised proficiencies now stretched to a larger world.
The most immense catalyst for this dramatic nucleus is Tony Leung Chiu-wai. The generational great brings his utmost in formulating a patient, multidimensional antagonist with tragic stoicism and concrete resolve. Not an ounce of wasteful, cartoonish fiendishness comes out of that man and he elevates the emotionality exponentially. If the MCU is good enough for the award-winning international star and cinephile muse of Wong Kar-wai, it’s good enough for the rest of the CBM-loathing snobs (paging Martin Scorsese) out there. Maybe this movie will convert a few skeptics. It sure deserves to.
LESSON #2: LIVING UP TO POTENTIAL— For a movie hinging on the breath of sentences and cardiovascular performances, the mental angles liberate Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings into something greater than a collection of cool set piece fights. Fortified by the aforementioned legacies imposed on our characters, the next largest trait of challenge is potential. Our main hero’s formative journey, and that of his loyal supporters, strides towards the courage to be more than what one was meant to be. Such achievement can save lives and worlds.
That height of potential also echoes outside of the movie to its inception and platform. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings propels new and inspiring champions from neglected ethnic, demographic, and creative sources. A plucked indie director, a strict critical darling heavyweight crossing the Pacific after decades to make his Hollywood debut, a raucous comedienne dialing it down, and a host of fresh faces, including a charismatic lead, came together to adapt a very non-household comic book property with all the winking wuxia love in the world. The result is a fully realized success. This is a big moment and the determined people involved knew to broaden their shoulders to recognize it, make the most of it, and, best of all, earn future ones for those that follow.