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The Stew Review: Shang-Chi a top-tier entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe

This image released by Marvel Studios shows Tony Leung, left, and Fala Chen in a scene from...
This image released by Marvel Studios shows Tony Leung, left, and Fala Chen in a scene from "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings." (Marvel Studios via AP)(Marvel Studios | AP)
Published: Sep. 10, 2021 at 9:33 AM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings more or less immediately became one of my favorite movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Some of this is due to it being one of the best American-made martial arts movies I’ve ever seen. Some of this is due to it delivering some incredibly cool moments and imagery, the likes of which we haven’t really seen much of in the MCU, much less in American filmmaking in general these days. But it’s due also in large part to the fact that the movie is consistently fun, funny, brimming with exhilarating action scenes and moves like a rocket. It’s just a genuinely great time at the movies and I found myself grinning from ear to ear for most of its (just over) two hour runtime. There are more than 20 MCU movies, and while I highly enjoy most of them, it definitely felt like it was time for Marvel to deliver something different than yet another costumed superhero outing. And that’s precisely what’s been done here with Shang-Chi giving audiences a straight-up kung fu adventure film.

In a way, the excellence of Shang-Chi as an action movie is bittersweet. The action scenes were designed and shot by Brad Allan, a brilliant martial artist who spent years as a member of Jackie Chan’s personal stunt team. He had truly come into his own as an action designer and choreographer but met an untimely death about a month before this film’s release. What he delivered here alongside director Destin Daniel Cretton is some of the most impressive hand-to-hand action I’ve seen in an American action film.

Marvel movies have had plenty of exciting and fun action scenes but, as is the case with so many Western films, the performers simply lack the training and capability to convincingly pull off what is shown off with aplomb in many Asian films. That is absolutely not the case here thanks to the exceptional skill shown off by the likes of Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh and nearly every other actor who throws hands (and feet). Allan may be gone, but he left a heck of a legacy on-screen here and it is absolutely exhilarating to watch. Capable, highly trained actors being filmed in wide shots without an excess of editing to cover up their inadequacies makes for exciting cinema. Who knew?!

Though it is brimming with excellent action, the heart of Shang-Chi is actually found in the familial drama driving the plot. Shaun (Liu) is a fairly typical 20-something in San Francisco. He’s mostly content to work his day job as a parking valet with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina) before spending their nights carousing and doing karaoke. But after Shaun kicks the living tar out of a group of henchmen, including a guy with a literal sword for an arm, on a bus, Katy demands to know who her lifelong friend actually is. Turns out his real name is Shang-Chi and he’s actually the son of a history-defining warlord who’s been alive for thousands of years thanks to ten powerful, magical (possibly alien) rings who trained Shaun since childhood to be an assassin. Ya know, normal stuff.

Shang-Chi’s dad, Wenwu (Leung), thinks he’s found a way to enter the mystical, ancient city his wife hailed from. Though she died more than a decade ago, Wenwu is certain he’s heard her voice calling to him to set her free from captivity. Though he’s willing to fight and kill to do so, Wenwu mostly just wants to reunite his family, and he especially wants his son to take up the mantle of leading the Ten Rings, his millennia-old crime organization.

Shang-Chi is, as expected, not too hip to his abusive father’s plans, but there still clearly resides in him a desire to be loved and accepted by Wenwu. It’s that push and pull between the light and dark within him that drives Shang-Chi’s emotional journey as he slowly comes to realize he can’t ever fully run from or hide his lineage, try as he might.

Liu has been acting for the better part of a decade (I really need to check out Kim’s Convenience) but this is without question his breakout performance and he handles leading man duties well. He’s handsome and funny, and though his charisma is somewhat low-key, he’s able to project enough stoic gravitas that you can always get a sense of what he’s feeling. If nothing else, he’s primed for a string of action roles based on how superbly he pulls off each fight scene. It’s always thrilling to watch a performer pull off their own stunts and fight moves, but Liu brings a very visible energy to his combat.

The real treat here, though, is watching Tony Leung make his Big Hollywood Debut. Leung is one of China’s biggest movie stars and he’s given more than enough incredible performances in truly amazing films to cement his status as one of the all-time great actors. But there’s something uniquely fun seeing him not just let loose in a big budget blockbuster, but to do so and not water down his trademark intensity. Leung’s greatest skill has always been his ability to communicate so much with just his eyes, and that intensity and passion is on full display here. Whatever shortcomings the script might have barely matter because Leung tells you everything you need to know about Wenwu with just a look.

If there’s a major shortcoming here it’s that there are elements of the script that feel notably undercooked. In particular there’s a moment before the big finale where Shang-Chi is brooding over his father’s treatment of him as a child, questioning whether or not he’s still just the assassin he was raised to be. It feels like something from a different version of the script where that self-doubt played a much larger part than what made it to screen.

And, as seems contractually obligated in these movies, the climax culminates with a lot of Typical CGI Nonsense. Though at least here that Typical CGI Nonsense is delivering a look at some mythical beasties and imagery that we don’t often get in these sorts of movies.

None of those frustrating elements (not even the often horribly glaring use of green screen composite shots) detracts enough from the experience to make this anything less than a total blast to watch. I’ve come to accept that most Marvel movies are simply going to have frustrating or undercooked elements to them in one way or another. But even grading on that curve, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings still manages to feel like a complete, thrilling package, one that I can’t wait to watch again.

Author’s Note: If you walk out of Shang-Chi jonesing for some more Tony Leung, check out The Grandmaster if you want more of him doing kung fu. Watch In the Mood for Love if you want one of his best, most internalized acting performances. And watch Hard Boiled if you want to see him co-star in one of the greatest, most over-the-top action movies ever made.

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