🇨🇦 Simu Liu earns superhero status in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Starring Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Tony Leung, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Yuen Wah, Ronny Chieng, Zach Cherry and Dallas Liu. Written by Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Opens in theatres Sept. 3. 132 minutes. PG
Father-son friction in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” must be second nature to its title star, played by Simu Liu. Fans of CBC-TV’s recently concluded comedy series “Kim’s Convenience” will recognize Liu, who was born in China and raised in Mississauga, as Jung, the estranged and rebellious son of shopkeeper Appa. The stakes are, of course, considerably higher in the movie, a superhero saga that’s the first in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to have an Asian lead and a mostly Asian cast. There’s the fate of the world to reckon with, as per the MCU norm, although — similar to “Black Widow” earlier this summer — it seems less important than patching up relations in a severely dysfunctional family. This also makes for a better story.
Shang-Chi’s dad is global crime boss Wenwu (Tony Leung), a deceptively quiet man who leads a villainous empire called the Ten Rings, named for the all-powerful arm jewelry Wenwu wields to advance his evil ambitions. He can change the course of history and has done so for centuries, thanks to the immortality the rings confer and the intense energy blasts they deliver. Wenwu trained Shang-Chi and also his daughter, Xialing (impressive newcomer Meng’er Zhang), to be martial arts masters and stone-cold assassins like himself, learning “every possible way to kill a man.” Wenwu expects both his children to join his Ten Rings crew, although you can tell right from the film’s title that Xialing doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as Shang-Chi. It’s Wenwu’s way of keeping Shang-Chi and Xialing close to him as a means of coping with grief over the tragic death of his beloved wife, Jiang Li (Fala Chen). She was a martial arts master herself who once lived in a remote paradise called Ta Lo, a place that gains significance as the movie unfolds. Wenwu is unwilling to accept that Jiang Li is gone forever and he’s convinced he can somehow bring her back. Shang-Chi abhors violence and wants nothing to do with his father or sister. He took off to San Francisco a decade ago, changed his name to Shaun and happily settled into a low-stress life of working as a car jockey with his best pal, Katy (Awkwafina), and singing karaoke in clubs with her at night. Shaun tells no one, not even Katy, about his past. Imagine her surprise when they’re riding a bus together and murderous thugs — including one aptly named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) — come after him. They’ve been sent by Wenwu.
Shaun responds with heroic moves that are a combination of Bruce Lee’s ferocity and Jackie Chan’s comedy. It’s the best part of the movie, choreographed by recently departed stunt ace Brad Allan, to whose memory the film is dedicated. It’s also one of the best action scenes in recent memory, rivalled only by Bob Odenkirk’s transit tussle in “Nobody.”
“Who are you?” Katy marvels, viewing her laid-back friend with new eyes. It’s time for Shaun to fess up about being Shang-Chi, but he still has to answer Katy’s question: Who is he, exactly? Therein lies the tale of “Shang-Chi,” at least the first half of it. Director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton (“Just Mercy,” “Short Term 12”) does his best work on a smaller canvas. He’s great with actors, orchestrating the banter and bonding between Shang-Chi and Katy, and delivering a superhero origin story that’s a lot more interesting than the usual fare.
For a while the movie seems like “The Bourne Identity,” with Shang-Chi emulating Matt Damon’s character as he displays hidden skills. You’d hardly know you were watching an MCU movie, except for a wall poster reference to “post-Blip anxiety” (hello, Avengers!) and a cameo by a certain character played by Benedict Wong.
There’s also a comic-relief interaction with another tangential Marvel figure. The latter should remain nameless to avoid a spoiler, even though the character in question could be cut from the film and no one would be the wiser. This player-to-be-named-later marks an abrupt shift in tone and location for the film’s second half, when Shang-Chi is obliged to fully embrace his superhero status — this follows an action-packed side trip to Macau — and confront his father’s dangerous delusions. Shang-Chi prefers to travel with the wisecracking Katy by his side, as she becomes more his superhero sidekick than semiromantic gal pal. Awkwafina brings more than her usual hyper shtick to the proceedings as she vows to do what she can to assist her friend. “Don’t die!” a worried elder tells her. We also meet Shang-Chi’s warrior aunt, Jiang Nan (Michelle Yeoh), who rekindles memories of her thrilling wire work in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
At this point in “Shang-Chi,” someone might as well have shouted, “Unleash the dragons!” Fearsome CGI creatures join the fray and a pitched battle ensues, offering much to marvel at but also the usual Marvel endgame attack. The by-the-numbers second half fortunately doesn’t dim the sparkle of the film’s first half, or the obvious rightness of Simu Liu in the role of Shang-Chi.
Liu, a former stuntman, has an easy way about him as both slacker Shaun and fleet-footed Shang-Chi. He looks like the kind of guy who could wrestle with super villains and joust with dragons. It bodes well for further Marvel adventures hinted at in the obligatory end credit teases. 🌗
(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)