Marina Times – Marvel martial arts legend fights from San Francisco to China
A magical mash-up from start to finish, Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings casts a kinetic jubilant spell. This brilliant and daring Pacific Rim adventure features a high-octane, high-stakes hero journey with jaw-dropping martial arts action, pop-up comedy, and hectic family drama that spans the streets of San Francisco to the exotic Macau. Additionally, it officially kicks off the final phase of Marvel Studios’ remarkably interwoven blockbusters and superhero TV shows with a number of ties to previous and upcoming films and series. Yet like the huge box office success Black Panther, you don’t need any prior knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (aka the MCU) or comic book canon to enjoy it. Directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short term 12, Just mercy), Shang Chi stands out easily as a multi-generational showdown between good and evil, propelled by a cavalcade of exaggerated fight scenes and embellished with modern, funky humor.
Shang-Chi was created in the 1970s as Marvel Comics’ master kung fu to complement the rise of martial arts sensation Bruce Lee and the proliferation of dubiously-labeled Hong Kong films. “Chop-socky” – those who featured Lee and those who didn’t. But even though Shang-Chi has become an afterthought in the pages of comics, this cinematic style of directing has endured in Asia, especially with the addition of period witchcraft elements adapted from Chinese myth. Elegantly appointed and richly costumed adventures such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and hero would bring prestige and critical acclaim to the broader genre. Meanwhile, Jackie Chan has grown into an international star with a comedic, daredevil take on this film brand, marked by its jaw-dropping stunt work and playfully wacky characterizations. And deadly sword-wielding ninjas, both solo and in packs, have begun to appear in a variety of thrillers around the world with increasing frequency. You could argue that all of this sets the stage for Shang-Chi’s big screen debut in Marvel’s first Asian-led superhero film.
CALLS OF DESTINY FROM ALL OVER THE SEA
Simu Liu – whose acting breakthrough was as the adorable lazy son Jung on the popular sitcom Kim’s convenience – is the main objective of Shang-Chi. Relying on the innate affability and decency he brought to Jung’s character, Liu absolutely shines as Shang-Chi, whom his San Francisco friends call Shaun. He’s a guy who parks cars in a fancy hotel to pay the rent and after work gets hammered in karaoke bars with his best friend and fellow valet Katy (the hilarious and mocking Awkwafina of Crazy Rich Asians and the TV series Nora from Queens). Unknown to his friends in San Francisco, Shaun’s life began in an ocean in China where he and his sister (Meng’er Zhang) were raised by two very powerful people: Jiang Li, a woman with a strange connection to the natural forces, and Wenwu, a deadly Chinese warlord and gang leader who turned away from the dark side and gave up his supernatural weapons – the film’s 10 title rings – upon marriage and fatherhood. Then, Jiang Li’s death brought Wenwu back to his ways of bargaining for power.
Despite a childhood dominated by an education that would prepare him to enter the family business, Shang-Chi had no desire to be the heir to the criminal empire of Wenwu. Instead, the young man fled to America, specifically the Bay Town, where he and Katy are attacked by Wenwu’s men at the start of the film. This encounter happens on a runaway 1-California Muni bus, and it’s just the first in a parade of stunning action sequences that are so original and seemingly death-defying that Jackie Chan would be proud of them. As the bus speeds up and over Nob Hill and eventually hurtles down Bay Street, Shang-Chi engages in close quarters combat, instinctively using seats, handrails, doors, and the fighting skills he learned when he was a child to gain the advantage over his attackers. A subsequent clash between Shang-Chi and some ninjas, with Katy caught between them, occurs on scaffolding attached to the side of a skyscraper, several stories above the ground. Like the crash on 1-California, it’s really exciting. And things only get crazier and more mystical when Shang-Chi and Katy find themselves in Macau, the starting point of a quest to find a secret village and a fortress inhabited by mythical creatures.
Here, we learn about Wenwu’s blueprint and how it could undermine Shang-Chi’s chosen path as well as expand control of the Ten Rings beyond China’s borders. Rather than being a one-note villain, Wenwu is a complex creation. His emotions and motivations resonate with Tony Leung, whose career as one of Hong Kong’s most revered and versatile men spans the magnificent romance of Wong Kar-Wai. Leaving for Love sinister and gritty crime thriller Hellish affairs to martial arts fantasy hero to the bio-photo The great master. His physical gifts and passion are fully exposed in Shang-Chi, especially during a clash between Wenwu and Jiang Li (Fala Chen) which is performed with a ballet grace reminiscent of the dreamlike and elegantly staged forest sequences of Zhang Yimou in hero.
BEYOND THE COMPETITION
Aside from Leung’s talent and Liu’s jovial relationship with Awkwafina, the cast also greatly benefits from the presence of Michelle Yeoh – the royalty of Chinese cinema whose transition to English-language films (Tomorrow never dies, Milkshakes with powder, and others) and TV shows (Star Trek: Discovery, The witcher, and more) was effortless. Yeoh’s ironic and nimble turn as Shang-Chi’s aunt is a welcome addition, as are supporting players Ben Kingsley and Benedict Wong, whose longtime Marvelite characters will recognize and applaud.
Although Hasbro GI Joe the film franchise beat it in the market with the recent release of the martial arts themed film Snake-eyes, Shang-Chi is much better in every way: storytelling, actors, special effects and cinematography. There is little competition between the two films when it comes to the crucial aspect of how the main sets and more intimate fight scenes are shot. No shaky cameras or confusing quick cut undermine the logic of the fight sequences in Shang-Chi.
The last act of Shang-Chi is crowded to the point of being crowded and frantic, but all of the above is so crisp or mind-blowing and, in Liu and Awkwafina’s case, so charming and cheerful that it doesn’t hamper the overall experience. Plus, it’s followed by a mid-credits and end-credits scene worth seeing. Yes, there’s Easter-eggy Marvel fan service here, and there are references to what has happened before and what could happen soon in the ten-plus-year-old movie saga. Corn Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings is one of the best origin stories in the MCU, which makes it a great place to jump into the fray if you want to.
Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings opens in theaters across the Bay Area on September 3.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on Michael Snyder’s cultural explosion, Going through GABNet.net, Roku, Spotify and YouTube, and The Mark Thompson Show on KGO radio. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster