Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Film Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings


Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

I liked this movie more than I thought I would.

Those who have been loyal readers to this blog know that I am a big fan of super hero movies.  But I also grew up on martial arts films.  Bruce Lee was one of my movie heroes and I used to imitate him all the time, tying my socks together and pretending they were nunchucks.  When Marvel announced that they were doing a movie about a C-List hero who was known to be the Master of Kung-Fu, I was a bit dubious.

But the movie surprisingly works more than it doesn't.  In fact, I think I liked it better than Black Widow, which is something I was not expecting.

The story centers around Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) who is the son of a notorious criminal leader Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung).  Wenwu has ten mystical braclets of unknown origin that cause him not to age along with several other super powers.  He used it to form an organization known as The Ten Rings.  Searching for more power, he searches for a hidden magical land called Ta Lo.  But he is bested in single combat by a woman warrior  Ying Li (Fala Chen).  Despite their opposition, the two fall in love.  Wenwu gives up his powers and criminal empire to become a family man.  But when old enemies kill Li, Wenwu returns to the ten rings and his evil ways and trains Shang to be an ultimate assassin.  But Shang has run away from that life.  The plot really begins with a 24-year-old Shang living in San Francisco, working as a parking valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina).  They spend their days in their dead-end jobs and their nights partying.  It is a life free of responsibility and ambition.  But one day, Shang is attacked on a bus by assassins and he has to unleash the full force of his martial arts power.  This sets him on a journey to find his estranged sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) and stop his father from his plans.

There are two things that this movie does very well.

The first are the fight scenes.  Like most Marvel movies, there is a bit too much CGI and the battles escalate to a ridiculous level in the third act.  But when they do actual martial arts action, it is a great deal of fun.  The opening fight between Wenwu and Li reminded me of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in a good way.  It was poetic and beautiful like a dance.  But the fights could also be thrilling and creative.  The fight on the bus was much better than I expected, with Shang using as much of the environment to fight his enemy.  I even like the moment where he found himself sitting next to a cute girl in the middle of the fight and had a micro-moment to flirt with her.  

The best of these scenes, though, take place on the side of an unfinished building several stories high.  I got the chance to see this movie in 3D and it made a big difference.  I found that one of the best uses of 3D is to get a sense of height.  As someone who is afraid of heights, this action sequence hit me right in the gut.  The constant fear of plummeting while fighting for your life gave the scene an added kick that had me completely invested.  And it culminated in one of the best one-on-one fights of the movie.

The second thing that was excellent about the movie was the relationship with Wenwu.   

Wenwu is such an interesting character to me because he taps into a deep truth that a lot of men feel.  Perhaps I am wrong, but any man who is married to a good woman can feel the way that civilizes him and makes him a better man.  I can feel deep in my bones that without my wife, I would be a much worse person.  There may even be a fear that deep down we are bad men or monsters, but for some reason this wonderful woman believes we can be good.  In Wenwu you can see the fear of losing that woman realized.  But compounded is the fear that you will lose whatever goodness she had brought out of you.  And that badness will spill over into your children.

It is very clear that Wenwu is the antagonist of the film.  But he was the most relatable character because I could understand him completely.  And his relationship with Shang is wonderfully complicated.  Wenwu resents Shang for not saving Li, even though he knows there is nothing he could have done.  Shang hates all the evil that his father inflicted on him and made him do, but he cannot help feel a connection to that man his mother loved.  This movie surprisingly taps into the deep contradictions we feel towards our fathers.

This could have been one of the top origin movies in the MCU.  But there are a few things holding it back.

The first are the performances.  Simu Liu does a better job than I was expecting.  He can turn on the charm and charisma at times.  But his performances feels like a water spigot that gets turned off when he doesn't have something to actively do.  There are moments when it feels like he just turns into a blank slate until it is time for him to do something again.  I imagine too that people will have polarizing reactions to Awkwafina's humor.  It didn't bother me much.  But she is still a performer and not yet an actress.  Watch her body language as she overexaggerates her personality like a freshmen doing a spring performance of Grease.  Of all the performances, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung is the most emotionally grounded.  There is also a rather good comedic performance from someone who appeared in a previous MCU film that I will not spoil here

The second is that the story is too messy.  I don't mean that it is too complicated.  There are too many elements that detract, rather than add.  There are whole patches of the movie where the main character, Shang, does almost nothing.  For an origin movie, this shouldn't be the case.  Look back at Iron Man or the first Captain America, and they don't really fade into the background in scenes the way Shang often does in order let his sister or another supporting character shine.  Others have pointed this out and it is true that instead of the sister supporting Shang's story, she ends up taking up a lot of the story oxygen.  

The final issue is the one that most super hero films have: a bloated third act.  It is difficult problem to overcome because it has turned into something that is expected from films like these.  You need a gigantic spectacle to cap off the film.  But instead of raising the emotional stakes, you end up adding more visual noise to the ending.  That is what happens with this ending too.

Two minor gripes are that they have to turn Katy into an expert archer in the third act in order to give her something important to do for the story.  The second is that they never explain what the ten rings actually do.  This way, the rings can do anything the story needs them to do at any moment.  I don't mind having mysterious, mystical items, but there should be some understanding of what they are instead of having them be a perpetual Deus ex machina.

Despite these criticisms, I found myself enjoying the movie more often than not.  If the other movies in phase 4 of the MCU are at least this good, I will keep coming back.

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