Friday, September 03, 2021

Tonight's Movie: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

We kicked off the holiday weekend going to see the latest Marvel movie, SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (2021).

This was the fifth "new" movie I've seen in a theater in under two months. While much of life here in California remains more than a bit odd, with unpleasant reminders of "lockdown life" popping up on a daily basis, the normalcy of "going to the movies" once more has been incredibly welcome.

Featuring Chinese mythology and martial arts, not to mention frequent use of Mandarin with English subtitles, SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS is as original an addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as earlier films like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) or BLACK PANTHER (2018). I thoroughly enjoyed it, finding it a unique film with interesting characters and a wonderful visual style; I left the theater with a big smile on my face. Going to the movies again, and Marvel movies in particular, has been a restorative experience.

Although considerable back story is unveiled as the film goes on, SHANG CHI does a terrific job immediately diving right into relationships and action. Shaun (Simu Liu) and his best pal Katy (Awkwafina) are valet drivers in San Francisco. They joke they're "underachievers" -- we're told Katy is a Berkeley grad -- but for the present they seem happy enough having fun together after getting through the daily work grind.

Then one day they're riding the bus when a group of mysterious men violently attack Shaun, who instantly reveals dazzling martial arts skills previously unknown to Katy. She gasps "Who are you?" but then is too busy taking over driving the wildly careening bus to inquire further.

Once the bus incident concludes, Shaun and Katy immediately get on a plane for Macao in search of his long-lost sister, and as they travel he tells her his life story, including his real name, Shang-Chi. His mother (Fala Chen) is dead and he hasn't seen his younger sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) in years, nor has he seen his father Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), who appears to be calling him home in an unorthodox fashion. It's not every father who sends hit men after an errant child, later saying he'd told them they wouldn't be able to kill his son: "I'm glad I was right."

Wenwu, it transpires, is a thousand-year-old warlord possessing ten mysterious rings which give him magical powers. Ultimately the fractured family ends up back in Shang-Chi's mother's isolated village, which includes a reunion with Shang-Chi's loving aunt (Michelle Yeoh). But there's much more conflict to come...

I'll leave a plot recap at that as the story defies easy explanation -- dragons are involved -- though its construction is such that it's actually simple enough to follow. The film does an excellent job of immediately drawing us to sympathetic characters juxtaposed against gradually pulling the curtain back on Shang-Chi's extensive family back story.

Simu Liu and Awkwafina have wonderful chemistry, and it's particularly interesting watching male and female characters who are just "pals." I'm curious to see whether the relationship evolves beyond that in future films, particularly given the weight of their shared experiences. I found Liu very likeable and look forward to seeing more of him.

As I noted when I saw RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (2021), Awkwafina has turned up in my viewing regularly over the last couple years. She does a terrific job in this, her character serving to lighten the story with humor while also being an "outside looking in" proxy for the audience as we come to understand the other characters and their complicated histories.

Fala Chen is exquisite as Shang-Chi's elegant, ill-fated mother, but for my money the queen of the film is Yeoh, previously seen by me in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000), CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018), and more. She's a wonderful antidote to Shang-Chi's killing machine father, a skilled martial artist in her own right yet giving her nephew the love and support he doesn't get from his father.

Leung is charismatic as Shang-Chi's father, particularly in the early scenes courting Li; their balletic hand-to-hand combat serves as an unusual kind of courtship dance. Although he's cruel to his children, turning Shang-Chi into a potential killer and ignoring Xialing for the crime of looking like her late mother, his pain over the loss of his great love is heartbreaking. Leung contributes a great deal in a difficult role.

Benedict Wong, the sidekick of DOCTOR STRANGE (2016), turns up in a couple fun scenes which serve to tie Shang-Chi into the larger MCU. We're assured at the conclusion that "THE TEN RINGS WILL RETURN."

Incidentally, as is common for Marvel films, SHANG-CHI has tag scenes, in this case two of them. Both convey important information about the future of this film's characters so be sure not to leave the theater until the film is completely over.

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS runs 132 minutes. It was directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who also cowrote the screenplay. The movie was filmed by Bill Pope. The musical score was by Joel P. West.

Parental Advisory: This movie is rated PG-13. It's a typical Marvel film: Bloodless violence and good guys triumphant. Children suffering parental loss may trouble young viewers.

A trailer is here.

For a list of Marvel films planned for release in the next couple of years, please click over to my review of BLACK WIDOW and scroll down to the very end.

After this summer's nice run of movies, I'm currently not anticipating seeing any additional new theatrical films until the release of Marvel's ETERNALS (2021) in early November. Angelina Jolie starring in a Marvel film! Can't wait.


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