Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings provided me with a sense of discovery I rarely experience at the movies, akin to the first time I saw The Wizard of Oz and The Matrix. This is a fantasy, and one with a hard center, but told with such joy, humor and showmanship, I was captivated by it immediately. It’s a Marvel movie and a building block in their Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s also better than most of those films and works best when it’s stacking the plot lines of its own story and not worrying about franchise requirements.
Simu Liu stars as Shaun, a valet who lives in San Francisco and spends his downtime with his best friend, Katy (played by Awkwafina). No one close to Shaun knows of his harrowing backstory, in which he endured a brutal upbringing by his ruthless father (played by Tony Leung, the suave, magnetic star of some of Wong Kar-Wai’s masterpieces, including The Grandmaster). Shaun’s full embrace of his lineage, as well as his real name and hidden abilities, empower him on a homecoming in which the fate of humankind is endangered.
Cretton’s film, like his prior works Short Term 12, The Glass Castle and Just Mercy, is about a fractured family dynamic, surviving one’s tortured past and finding rebirth and a new direction and identity from the experience. Shang-Chi, played with warmth by Simu Liu in a star-making performance, must face his rotten childhood and overcome the psychological hold his father has on him.
Only the end credits reveal the full cast list, and it was a nice surprise to see how many great actors are in this. I won’t reveal the biggest surprises but will state the obvious that Awkwafina, who is wonderful here, is an asset in a supporting role that will remind many of her work in this year’s Raya and the Last Dragon, which also celebrated its culture and depicted the effect betrayal has on a child. It’s always great seeing Tsai Chin, who steals her single scene. Leung, in an award-worthy turn, demonstrates an ability to intimidate and still project a glimmer of humanity makes him an especially complex villain.
The fight sequences have a clarity to them that is rare and artful: rather than a shaky camera and/or flash cuts capturing the movement, there is a fluid, even sensual quality to the action, more a violent dance than a jumble of choreography. Even the elaborate CGI never eclipses the movement, only adding to the mythical dimension to each confrontation. An early scene on a bus is wonderful, as it mirrors a similarly enthralling scene from this year’s Nobody, but has the ambition to set the bus in motion as well.
At the midpoint, there’s an innovative twist to a mob hit scene, using a rotating camera, a mirrored reflection, and a tortured face to convey a traumatic childhood memory. Likewise, Leung’s final scene, a moving use of montage. The editing and brilliant camera work by Bill Pope ensure that you feel the hits the characters take, but you also get the emotional impact of the story.
The moments where the story nods in the direction of preestablished Marvel tales and characters aren’t obtrusive, though I wish there were less of it. The film is on such strong footing, melding humor, spectacle, and heartache in equal measure, that it doesn’t need the Marvel checklist to justify its existence. Likewise, the closing scenes, setting up the inevitable sequels and spinoffs- fine, but it undermines the weight of what has been achieved. Instead of adhering to the To Be Continued formula, how about just, you know, giving us a real ending?
Overall, the things I disliked about the film are minor. As I think back on it, I recall the dreamy sight of a forest closing in on itself, the look two warriors give each other in slow motion during a battle, the hilarious thumbs up Awkwafina gives our hero after his first real match and the dramatic weight Leung brings to his every scene.
Cretton’s film never loses sight of its portrait of embracing true identity, and mending the heart that a father continues to break. There’s so much more at stake here for Shang-Chi than just the opponents who line up to fight him, and it’s those layers that make this so special. There’s a richness here that approaches House of Flying Daggers, while paying homage to the movies that made Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Bruce Lee legends. This is a fantastic film, easily one of the year’s best.