Shang-Chi Review [SPOILERS]
Your resident fight choreographer and martial artist here to review MCU’s first real martial arts movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings. So put on your rings of power, prepare your Lembas… wait not that kind of rings of power. Well, put on your dragon scale costumes and let’s begin.
While I immensely enjoyed Shang-Chi, its overall structure felt too eclectic for my taste. So let’s break down what the movie accomplished and where it falls short. Full disclosure, since I’m not well-versed enough about people of Asian descent living in America, I won’t be delving too much into racial and cultural aspects of the movie.
First of all, Shang-Chi as a character is super-relatable. At least in the first half of the movie. He’s not this cool Marvel protagonist that does things his way. He’s a character who comes to live a life where he accepts being mediocre. He works as a parking valet at a hotel and keeps his head down. His lines are written in a grounded manner and Simu Liu delivers a solid performance.
Awkwafina, on the other hand, once again delivers the same performance as most of her other roles. I have not watched everything she’s been in, so take it with a grain of salt, but she seems to play the same character she usually plays. Weird and quirky know-it-all character that doesn’t take shit from anybody and manages to sneak in a “vagina” line. Overall she delivers, but her character becomes less relevant as the plot progresses.
And then there’s Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh. Veterans of Hong Kong cinema, already masters at their craft and perfect actors to cast in a wire-fu martial arts movie. Tony Leung really steals the movie. Like Thanos, his character is an antagonist with a somewhat deep story and not a full-blown villain. His motivations, while misguided, are pure and Tony Leung delivers an incredible performance that conveys lost of feelings without using words. His fame as “the actor who acts with his eyes” is once again proven to be well deserved, as he breathes life into one of the most remarkable MCU antagonists yet.
Now, personal performances aside, the movie as a whole delivers a great fun time. I’ve watched most of it with a huge grin on my face, mostly because of the action design. The way combat was designed in this movie was phenomenal. Mostly thanks to the late Brad Allan who was a member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team, arguably the best stunt team you can get on camera, being the main action designer and second unit director.
On that note, I’d also like to commend director Destin Daniel Cretton for giving the second unit direction to the action designer. Out of all the directors I’ve worked with in my career, an alarming number of them were trying to be in charge of everything. Despite working with people with much more experience in shooting fight scenes, a lot of directors don’t want to “hand over the wheel” to someone else. In this case, it’s quite obvious that Brad Allan had a say in how the combat should be shot. The fights give out a Jackie Chan vibe in both the way they’re structured and they way they’re shot.
Now, on the juicy part where I take apart the movie and analyze the pieces. Although, in this case, the movie is already a bit disjointed so it’s easier to pick up pieces and examine them individually.
First of all, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a movie consisting of five big pieces. The problem is, these pieces are not connected to each other in a fluid manner. The movie spends time at a setting/place for 25% of the time and then moves on the next setting/place. First, we get Shaun-Chi’s ordinary life, invaded by the Ten Rings Organization. Then we move to Xialing’s underground fighting ring. Then, we move to the Ten Rings Organizaton HQ where the characters prepare to move on to the next setting: Ta Lo, the mystic village in another dimension. And finally, there’s the Godzilla x Kung Fu Hustle collaboration event, for some reason.
The way the movie was structured around these settings felt a bit eclectic to me. Despite great acting and nice dialogue, story beats felt a bit uninspired and downright ridiculous at times. Especially the last act of the movie took a very strange turn, where we got to watch two giant CG monsters fight each other while the primary protagonist watches and the primary antagonist is… well, dead. Apart from Tony Leung’s amazing performance and the depth of his character, Wenwu, killing him off to give way to a giant CG monster fight was by far the most unexpected and terrible decision this movie could have made.
What I love about Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings is that the ten rings of power has very little to do with the story. The movie doesn’t base itself around the rings. Wenwu could have some other source of supernatural power and the movie would still work. The rings are a symbol of rejecting your humanity to acquire more power. Wenwu did that, but after a millenium, thanks to his wife he rediscovers his humanity and the movie bases its plot around Wenwu’s humanity.
At its heart, this is a movie about a family who has to discover their own humanity, at the cost of each other. For this reason, having the climax of the movie be a huge CG monster fight was -and I cannot stress this enough- a terrible decision. Black Panther got flak for having a low quality CG fight at the end, but at least it was a fight that was built up throughout the movie and it was between the protagonist and the antagonist. Shang-Chi failed to build up the big monster fight, but more importantly the movie did not need it.
Overall, I enjoyed Shang-Chi a lot. The action was top notch. Tai Chi forms performed by Michelle Yeoh was a sight to behold. The way this movie made tributes to Wuxia cinema, to Jackie Chan, to all the great moviemakers of Hong Kong cinema was amazing and a step into the right direction. I love the beast the MCU has become, not because I’m a Marvel fan, but because now MCU has the heart to do movies like Shang-Chi, or shows like WandaVision and Loki. Kevin Feige is obviously aware that they can do literally anything now and I’m very glad to see that Marvel is not afraid to try new things. But no more CG monster fights, please. Unless it’s Shuma-Gorath.