Review: ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,’ starring Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh and Florian Munteanu

August 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Meng’er Zhang, Simu Liu and Awkwafina in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

Some language in Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China and in San Francisco, the superhero action film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.

Culture Clash: A Chinese man who ran away to the U.S. as a teenager, in order to get away from his ruthless overlord father, must confront his past and the power of 10 magical arm rings that are the source of the story’s conflict.

Culture Audience: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and are looking for an enjoyable origin story that is not a sequel or a prequel.

Tony Leung and Fala Chen in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings” has plenty of heart and adventurous spirit to satisfy superhero movie fans. It’s too bad that the title character has a personality that’s duller than the average Marvel superhero. Shang-Chi is frequently outshined by his wisecracking female best friend/sidekick. And there’s a long stretch in the middle of the film that drags the pace down considerably.

Directed by Daniel Destin Daniel Cretton, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Rings” is an origin story that doesn’t dazzle in a spectacular way, but it gets the job done in a crowd-pleasing way that serves the movie’s target audience well. Cretton co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. It’s yet another Hollywood studio superhero story about a superhero with “daddy issues.” The big difference this time is that the majority of the cast is Asian, mostly of Chinese heritage.

One of the problems with the movie is that the climactic showdown scene doesn’t offer much that most movie and TV audiences haven’t already seen before. To put it bluntly: This movie needed better villains. In “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” there’s a villain named Razor Fist (played by Florian Munteanu) with a machete as an arm. That pales in comparison to a “Stars Wars: Rise of Skywalker” villainous henchman named Cardo that had a shotgun for an arm.

Battles with dragons? Yawn. It’s very “Game of Thrones” and not much different from any recent big-budget live-action movie where the dragons are the big monsters that have to be defeated. And a hero going in a one-on-one duel fight against his villain father? Ever hear of “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Return of the Jedi”?

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is literally an origin story, since viewers see how, in China, his parents met, fell in love, got married, and had Shang-Chi as their first child. The movie shows Shang-Chi as a baby, as a pre-teen child (played by Jayden Zhang), as a teenager (played by Arnold Sun) and as an adult (played by Simu Liu). Shang Chi’s father Xu Wenwu (played by Tony Leung) was a corrupt overlord who came into possession of 10 magical arm rings (because bracelets must not sound macho enough) that allowed him to have immense power. His heart softened when he met Ying Li (played by Fala Chen), who charmed him after a sword duel that she won against him. It was love at first sight, and they got together soon after that.

Shang-Chi spent his entire life training to be a fighter and to follow in his father’s footsteps. Shang-Chi’s mother Li also gave him a special green pendant that she said he must never lose or give away. But tragedy struck when Shang-Chi was a teenager: His mother died. Wracked with griedfand despair, widower Xu Wenwu went back to his corrupt ways. There’s a part of the movie that reveals that Xu Wenwu also might have lost his mind to insanity.

When Shang-Chi was 14 years old, Xu Wenwu ordered him to complete his first “assignment” assassination. At age 15, Shang-Chi ran away from China to the United States. He ended up settling in San Francisco, where in high school he befriended a smart-alecky girl named Katy, and they’ve been best pals ever since. The movie does not show Shang-Chi’s American life during the time that he was in high school or in his 20s, but he and Katy have a few discussions about their past together.

Now in their early 30s, Shang-Chi (who changed his first name to Shaun) and Katy (played by Awkwafina) work together as parking valets at a ritzy hotel. They’re very educated and over-qualified for the job. He can speak four languages, while she has a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley. Katy has a mischievous and rebellious streak, since she’s the type of valet driver who will take a car out on a joy ride instead of parking it. That’s what she does when she gets handed the keys to a red BMW, which she takes to speed through traffic, with Shaun/Shang-Chi along for the ride.

Katy doesn’t know about Shang-Chi’s past until it catches up to him in one of the movie’s best action scenes. It’s when Iron Fist and some other thugs attack Shang-Chi and Katy while they’re on a moving bus. Katy is shocked to find out that her friend Shaun has superhero-level fighting skills. Later, he tells her that his real name is Shang-Chi.

But the “fight on the bus” scene kicks off the movie in a very thrilling way. The martial arts and choreography are top-notch. And there are some heart-pounding moments when Katy has the take the wheel of the bus and navigate through San Francisco’s hilly, narrow and crowded streets. It makes her daredevil joyrides as a valet look like an easygoing holiday in comparison.

Why is Shang-Chi being targeted by these goons, who seemed to come from out of nowhere? As he explains to Katy about his secret past, it means that his father must be looking for him, because the assassins took Shang-Li’s pendant. And you know what that means: Shang-Chi and Katy are going to China—Macau, to be more specific.

If non-talking monsters or aliens aren’t the main villains in a superhero movie, the talking villains better have a memorable personality. Unfortunately, as talented as Leung is as an actor, this type of formulaic, power-hungry overlord has been done in movies and TV so many times already. After watching “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” for the first time, the average viewer will be hard-pressed to remember one line of dialogue that Xu Wenwu said, although Leung certainly gives it his all in depicting a once-loving father who has since gone in an evil direction.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” does have moments of levity, mainly because of Katy’s sarcasm and the MCU re-appearance of Trevor Slattery (played by Ben Kingsley), a flamboyant British actor who was previously seen in 2013’s “Iron Man 3.” It won’t be revealed here what Trevor does in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” but it’s enough to say that a cute faceless and furry creature that Trevor has with him (about the size of a dog) will be one of the most remembered aspects about “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”

Dr. Strange sidekick Wong (played by Benedict Wong) is another MCU character who’s in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” although Wong’s screen time is a lot less than Trevor’s. New characters to the MCU include Shang-Chi’s estranged younger sister Xialing (played by Meng’er Zhang, making an impressive feature-film debut) and their aunt Ying Nan (played by Michelle Yeoh), who is the sister of Shang-Chi and Xialing’s late mother.

Before Shang-Chi and Katy go through predictable scenes of training for the big showdown battle that takes place at the end of the movie, there’s another standout fight scene that takes place on a skyscraper. In many ways, the skyscraper scene and the bus scenes are more unique and more thrilling fight than the final battle scene. This movie’s action definitely shines the most when it has martial arts between humans, rather than visual-effect-heavy battles with mythical creatures.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a big step forward for Hollywood-made superhero movies that do not have a predominantly white cast. There’s plenty to like about the movie. But as an origin story, it relies a little too much on over-used, basic tropes. Except some of the fight scenes, there wasn’t a lot of originality in how this story was structured. The good news for people unfamiliar with the MCU, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is one of the few MCU movies that’s a true stand-alone film that doesn’t have a lot of references to other MCU films that you would have to know about to understand these references.

However, it’s not a good sign when one of those past references from an MCU movie (Trevor) is more entertaining to watch than the main hero and the main villain in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Awkwafina might get mixed reactions in her role as Katy, since people seem to love or hate Awkafina’s off-screen personality. Liu is perfectly fine as Shang-Chi, but he doesn’t have the charisma to be in the upper echelon of beloved MCU characters. The rest of the cast is serviceable in their roles. This movie isn’t going to win any prestigious awards for any of the cast members.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” also has disappointing mid-credits and end-credits scenes. People really won’t miss anything if they skip the credits. However, it’s enough to say that the mid-credits scene does show Shang-Chi, Katy, Wong and two other MCU characters. As far as escapist entertainment goes, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” delivers enough to satisfy people who are fans of superhero movies or martial arts. But people who want more magnetic personalities in action heroes might have to look elsewhere.

Marvel Studios will release “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” in U.S. cinemas on September 3, 2021. A one-night-only sneak preview of the movie was screened in select IMAX cinemas in the U.S. and Canada on August 18, 2021.