It’s ok, folks; our long national nightmare is over. Marvel’s latest film is out, and we can all stop holding our breath because it’s pretty great. I know there are a ton of you out there waiting to see this, and you want to go in as blind as possible –and that’s honestly a good idea!– so if you want to bookmark this and come back later, here are the Coles Notes: it’s good! It has some great laughs! It has some absolutely dope fight scenes! Simu Liu and Awkwafina are great together! I think you’re going to like it!
Ed. Note: As of this writing, there have been over 4800 cases of COVID-19 reported in the last seven days here in British Columbia, where I live. While I firmly believe that the big screen is the best place to see a movie like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, please remember that no movie is worth endangering your own life or anyone else’s. So please get vaccinated, wear a mask and maintain social distancing, and if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, the movie will be out on-demand before the end of the year. Safety first, friends!
As the film opens, Shang-Chi (Canada’s Simu Liu) is living a relatively carefree life in San Francisco as Shaun, working alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) as a valet at a swanky hotel. As they are riding the bus one morning, he is attacked by mercenaries and kicks their butts, much to the surprise of Katy, who had no idea about his mysterious past or his status as the son of a mystical, 1000-year-old warlord (Tony Leung Chiu-wai).
This begins their quest around the world to meet up with his sister, and confront his father, and seize his destiny. Yes, I am speaking in vague archetypes, but this is a Marvel movie, so it’s appropriate. There is actually a lot more nuance to be dug through here, but nothing that doesn’t come packaged as a fairly major spoiler. Suffice to say that while the basics of the plot will be a little on the predictable side (Marvel movies love daddy issues), the resolution of those things is well executed and satisfying, and each of the major characters gets a (relatively) complete and satisfying arc.
Each of the actors involved acquits themselves splendidly. Awkwafina is her reliably funny self, and her character is delightfully good-hearted and fun as well. She gets many bigger laughs out loud moments, but she also gets some excellent scenes with Meng’er Zhang (playing Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing), where they have near-instant chemistry and reassurance from one another. I can’t quite remember if the film passes the Bechtel Test, but it’s pretty close, and that’s nice to see.
Michelle Yeoh doesn’t have as much screen time as anyone would like her to have, but she also has some lovely scenes with Simm Liu, particularly one sparring scene that is both well-acted and beautiful to watch. I really hope that Tony Leung Chiu-wai breaks out in North America in a bigger way due to this movie, not just because of his action chops but because he is a talented actor. Both he and Yeoh are living legends of Asian cinema, and he gets to carry most of the film’s pathos. It’s true that Wenwu The Mandarin is a villain, but he’s also a caring father with a tragic past, and it helps to have a performer of his calibre on hand to portray all that.
The big news with this movie is, of course, Canada’s own Simu Liu in the title role as Shang-Chi. Fans of Kim’s Convenience already know he’s funny, but he really does have the action and dramatic chops as well. Liu is poised to become a global superstar with this role, and it is well deserved; his presence on screen is natural and vulnerable and human, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
There is also the film’s direction to talk about, and I’m pleased to report that it is incredibly well-directed, with a few notable moments of exception –but those moments are mostly ones we’ve come to expect from Marvel films. Destin Daniel Cretton is clearly a talented filmmaker and knows how to get the most out of his actors, and as it turns out, he has a pretty good eye for action as well. Two fights scenes, in particular, are excellently choreographed and shot. The planning that must have gone into those sequences with cinematographer Bill Pope must have been intense, with complex camera movements that track the fights and move in and out of them as though we were one of the henchmen.
There are, of course, the Marvel hallmarks, though: massive exposition dumps in the second act cause a few pacing issues, as the film cuts to flashbacks a number of times, and each of those flashbacks is cut to multiple times to reveal context slowly, it does feel like the momentum slows down a lot. It’s a good filmmaking technique, but it’s not 100% successful here.
The third act has a big CGI filled fight during which the camera moves and cuts around way too fast to maintain the audience’s sense of geography. Luckily though, as stated above, these are the exceptions and the film is excellently directed otherwise. There are numerous connections to the greater Marvel universe, but they are used as a garnish to an otherwise self-contained story, and while I won’t reveal what they all are, I will say that they all make sense.
Story-wise, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings doesn’t break the mould as much as it would like you to believe it does. Those of us who have watched a lot of Marvel movies (or just a lot of movies) will definitely see some of the twists and turns coming, but since the story is well executed and the characters well-drawn, this isn’t really a complaint. All of this adds up to an excellent and exciting new addition to the MCU –one that can take things in both newer and older directions organically– and the best new solo character debut since at least Black Panther.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens in theatres tomorrow, September 3rd, 2021, and will be one of two movies discussed on the next episode of the Awesome Friday movie Podcast.
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