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With: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng'er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Ben Kingsley
Written by: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language
Running Time: 132
Date: 09/03/2021
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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Un-Kung Hero

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Just as Black Panther gave the world its first Black name-above-the-title Marvel superhero in 2018, now does Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings give the world its first Asian name-above-the-title Marvel superhero in 2021. The two movies have quite a bit in common, other than their cultural impact. They both take place partly in the Bay Area, as well as in a mystical realm that common people cannot access.

Marvel was smart enough to hire an Asian-American director for the film, and a talented one at that. Even though Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle, Just Mercy) was born in Hawaii to a Japanese mother, and the film is about Chinese culture, he still turns in a full-blooded Marvel film, colorful, exhilarating, funny, and full of hope.

Based on comics ceated by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin that debuted in 1973 — under the title The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu — the movie begins as our hero, called "Shaun" (Simu Liu, perhaps best known for the TV series Kim's Convenience), is living in San Francisco in a typically small garage apartment. He wakes up and goes round to pick up his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell), says hello to her family, grabs a bit of breakfast, and kisses her grandma. Grandma scolds them both for wasting their lives, working as car-parkers at the Hotel Fairmont, and spending their evenings drinking and singing at karaoke bars.

One day, while riding the bus to work, Shaun is approached by some thugs, wanting a special charm he wears around his neck, something his mother gave him when he was small. Katy is used to defending Shaun in fights, but this time Shaun fights back, with heretofore unseen incredible martial arts skills. During the fight, the bus's brakes are severed, and Katy must steer the runaway beast through the hilly San Francisco streets, while Shaun continues to fight the oncoming thugs in the back. It's a spectacular sequence, and ought to go down in history as one of the great SF chases.

(Note: In October of 2020, my girlfriend and I went to the Buena Vista Cafe for a birthday Irish Coffee, which I had never had, and we came across evidence of a movie shoot for a film called Steamboat. A quick search revealed it to be sets for Shang-Chi. I got a picture in front of a Marvel truck. I've been looking forward to the film ever since. Sadly, none of the stuff we saw made it into the final cut, but it was still a fun day.)

(Note 2: I asked director Cretton whether Shang-Chi would ever meet fellow SF residents Ant-Man and the Wasp. He said, "A lot of the things that you learn when you're working at Marvel is that there's a clear trajectory of all the other characters, and the specific timelines. We kept wondering as we were writing this, 'where are they?'" he says. "Could they just be passing by in the background? They could be, actually. They are really small.") [See my full interview here.]

From San Francisco, Shaun, now Shang-Chi, and Katy make their way to China, intending to protect Shang-Chi's sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) from the same attackers. (But not before one of those old exchanges, with Katy saying "I'm coming!" and Shang-Chi responding, "No! It's too dangerous.") Their search for the sister brings them to a kind of underground fight club. Believe it or not, Wong (Benedict Wong), from Doctor Strange, is there, fighting the Abomination (voiced by Tim Roth, from The Incredible Hulk). Shang-Chi inadvertently signs up for a fight, and ends up fighting... Xialing. And she certainly doesn't need any protection.

They have both been tricked and summoned by their father, Wenwu (the legendary Tony Leung Chiu-wai, of Hard-Boiled, In the Mood for Love, etc.). We learn that, centuries ago, Wenwu obtained the mystical ten rings of the title, which give him incredible powers, as well as immortality. But he fell in love with Jiang Li (Fala Chen), who was a guardian of the secret city of Ta Lo. Now Jiang Li is dead, and Wenwu believes that she is there, alive but imprisoned. He wishes his children to help find the secret city and free her.

There's a little tie-in here to the Iron Man films that I don't think I'll tell you about, but suffice to say that brother and sister make it through a car-eating forest to Ta Lo. There they meet their aunt Jiang Nan (Michelle Yeoh, also a legend, from Supercop, The Heroic Trio, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, etc.) who helps protect a great seal, behind which is a terrible danger. She explains that their mother is, indeed, dead and their father will destroy everything if he opens the seal.

Thus begins a training sequence, with even Katy learning how to shoot bows and arrows, before the bad guys arrive, and the big battle begins. It all goes pretty much as you'd expect (especially since Shang-Chi's new superhero suit has elbow-length sleeves to accommodate the ten rings that he will soon inherit), but Cretton does it all with great spirit and vibrancy. Perhaps it gets a pass because it's exactly the kind of thing we could use after the past couple of years, but it really does seem genuinely empowering and exciting.

Not to mention that Cretton's other films were all about struggling against rough childhoods, or racism, to do what's right in the world, albeit on a smaller scale. (Certainly Shang-Chi has suffered a bit of both in this story.) A kind of lightness and bits of life appear here and there, and while the humor isn't quite sustained during the final battle (Awkwafina is too busy fighting to crack jokes), the movie eventually picks up right where it left off.

Be sure to stick around for the usual Marvel codas after the lengthy credits. I won't say who shows up, but I will suggest that, if you look at Cretton's earlier films, you'll have a pretty good clue. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will open in theaters on September 3, 2021, and then 45 days later — which is apparently Monday, October 18 — it will begin streaming on Disney+, without the $30 premium price tag. (This is the "interesting experiment" that became a misunderstanding between Disney CEO Bob Chapek and star Liu, who mistook the phrase for a racist comment.)

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