A prodigal son is pulled back into his powerful father's world.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring Simu Liu, Tony Leung, and Awkwafina
Review by Jon Kissel
For Shang Chi, the life of an assassin is not for him, at least after he’s killed his first target at 14. This is notably kept offscreen, because this is a family-friendly MCU movie, but once teenage Shang Chi has tasted blood, he flees to the US. As an adult, now played by Simu Liu, he’s a twenty-something good-time-guy with a service industry job and no real prospects beyond finding the next great karaoke bar with best friend Katy (Awkwafina). His long spring break ends when he’s attacked by his father’s goons. Shang Chi returns to his old life to warn his sister (Meng’er Zhang), now an underworld figure herself, but both are intercepted by their father. With the surviving family reunited, he tells them that he’s sure their mother is still alive back in Ta Lo, and he needs their help to get her back.
Marvel has been sneaking in scenes complimentary to Chinese audiences for years, so it was only a matter of time before they made a film starring Asian actors in an Asian setting. As they’re wont to do, the studio clearly wants everyone to look over in this direction at their diversity efforts, instead of the cash-money direction aimed at a rising share of the global audience. However, it’s hard to be cynical when the end product is as polished and considered as this one. Cretton didn’t just make a race-swapped version of an MCU movie. Instead, Shang Chi and the Ten Rings is informed by Asian American culture and the cinematic tradition of Hong Kong and Japanese martial arts films. The stereotype of the emotionally ungenerous parent is fully indulged in, but it’s oddly humanizing and understandable from Wenwu’s perspective. He and Ying Li tried love and affection for years, and now he’s going to try something else. Love is now expressed as an accumulation of useful skills. I haven’t heard anything from Asian American perspectives about this portrayal being insulting so I’ll defer to their taking of offense or not. Here, it seems like exactly the path that Wenwu would take.
Cretton’s recognizable homages to the films of various Asian cinematic titans also give Shang Chi a style that the other films in the franchise lack. For as naked a pitch for Chinese markets as this is, with their general distaste for suggestive situations, it’s also the sexiest film of the MCU thanks to the film’s, and perhaps the franchise’s, best scene. The fight between Wenwu and Ying Li is ripped straight from films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, or The Grandmaster. It conveys the intimacy of hand-to-hand fighting and the starstruck attraction between the two characters, all without the overwritten MCU banter that is becoming more and more intolerable. No words are spoken, but all the words are communicated. Later scenes smell like Jackie Chan, allowing the film to have multiple tones in its action while being compelling throughout.
The second Tony Leung was cast, he immediately became one of the MCU’s best villains before frame one was shot. He exceeds expectations by lending his specific sense of controlled gravitas to a film that barely deserves it. For Leung, there appears to be no difference between this and his next collaboration with all-timer director Wong Kar-wai. He’s not phoning anything in, but is building a complex character within a film that devolves into a battle between soul-sucking dragons. Leung’s Wenwu has been told no once in his extremely long life, and that’s when Ying Li refused to survive. This very powerful man takes that no and nearly turns it into an apocalypse. The film makes him sympathetic by keeping him singularly focused on reuniting with his wife, a hubristic but compassionate take on a character we’ve seen be far less ably portrayed or sketched out. Surrounding Leung is Liu, who harkens back to the MCU’s early days when they took big chances on unknown actors. He does fine in a straightforward hero’s journey. Zhang seems destined for a short supporting run on one of the Disney+ shows, and Awkwafina does her thing as the comic relief. Their communal problem is that Leung, and eventually Michelle Yeoh as a Ta Lo elder, are blowing them off the screen. This was an inevitability, but a sequel might allow the young leads to stretch their legs.
Where Shang Chi falls apart is in its globular final act. A story that had been about a young man finding his place out from under his father’s considerable shadow grows to become about nothing less than the fate of the planet. What these films always forget is that the small-stakes dilemmas are open-ended and any ending is possible. A sentient viewer understands that no, the MCU will not in fact be destroyed by a demon dragon whose parasites collect souls for it to feed on. Katy’s arrow, untrained though she may be, will undoubtedly find its target and Shang Chi will undoubtedly use that window to allow the good dragon to undoubtedly vanquish the CGI big bad. A film that had taken its time with emotional stakes is now racing towards the finish with hacky training montages, and is exchanging its floral backgrounds for black landscapes shrouded in overcast fog. The film becomes so different that I want to absolve Cretton of the blame, like the MCU house team irresistibly horned in and made him include this fairy tale nonsense.
Shang Chi’s final act is not so execrable to eliminate the memory of what came before, and those parts of the film allow it to glide to a middle-of-the-road finish. This is a film that had so much going for it, from the grace of its inherent setting and style to the potency of Tony Leung. The actor, and the character he played, are unstoppable forces meeting the impenetrable wall of studio demands, and the wall won. In spite of itself, the resulting collision leaves the strong parts intact. B