There are many differences in American and Asian cinema, but none stand out as much as the way stunt sequences are used. More often than not, a stunt sequence in American-made films is more about wowing the audience than moving the narrative or character arcs forward, a method of padding time and increasing the “wow” of it all. In Asian-made films, the action is more often an integral element, each physical engagement communicating an internal aspect as much as impressing audiences. You can see this in the climactic battle in director Benny Chan’s action thriller Raging Fire, out of China, or every altercation in director Lee Yong-ju’s science-fiction drama Seobok, out of South Korea. Compare these moments against the majority of the scenes in director Justin Lin’s F9 (2021) and you’ll see that the America version of action is merely a series of escalations creating various impasses to overcome, though rarely creating moments of character growth or change. Despite its obvious Marvel Studios leanings, director Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings feels more like a modern wuxia tale than the standard American actioner, using the action to communicate the internal in ways subtle and blatant and absolutely engaging.
Shaun (Simu Liu) is living his best life in San Francisco working a valet parking gig with best friend Katy (Awkwafina), enjoying the moments as they come. The illusion of what his life is shatters when he and Katy are attacked during their bus ride to work, forcing him to use the martial arts skills he’s hidden for a decade to defend them and the rest of the passengers. Believing that this attack was perpetrated by his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), Shaun goes in search of his sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), to ensure her safety, a choice which makes him face his past identity and the violence he left behind.
There are a number of surprises, but, like all things in cinema, it all begins at the top: director Destin Daniel Cretton. Prior to Shang-Chi, Cretton directed/co-wrote both The Glass Castle (2017) and Just Mercy (2019), as well as Shack 12 (2013), notable for its cast of soon-to-be household names. Each of these films are, at their core, dramas, and none feature the kind of spectacle MCU fans have come to expect, especially after 24 films that set a clear precedent. That Shang-Chi dazzles as much with the action as it does the core dramatic elements is an undeniable surprise. No other way to put it considering how far outside Cretton’s prior wheelhouse this production is, yet, Shang-Chi not only has some of the best stunt sequences in the MCU to date, but they are styled in a way that speaks to the Asian diaspora. In the original comics, the leader of the Ten Rings, originally known as the Mandarin, wore actual rings, each one possessing a different power, each one worn on a singular digit, combining to give him incredible power. Redesigned in the MCU, the rings are transformed into something akin to kung fu iron rings and Wenwu utilizes them in a martial arts style similar to hung gar kung fu, though his hand movements tend to favor a closed fist approach. Given the origin story the film offers, Wenwu would lean toward a devastating style of combat, rather than something delicate or possessing of flourishes. This is why the introduction of Fala Chen’s Ying Li and her more tai chi-based, open palm technique, matters so greatly as an opposing style to Wenwu’s. This is, of course, where the wuxia aspects are the most prevalent as the two engage in combat that’s more dance than intimidating. Especially in film, fights should always communicate something to the characters and/or the audience, and watching them punch, kick, deflect, and spin, as each one looks to create an opening, informs the audience of everything they need to know about both. With zero doubt, it certainly helps that Leung is well-versed in traditional dramatic pieces (In the Mood for Love), wuxia (Hero), and action (Hard Boiled), so his part both with the stunts and performance is beyond believable; it’s often exhilarating or heartrending, depending on context. In the single aforementioned scene, several aspects of Asian diaspora are presented without denigration or mocking, without any hint of shallow or performative meaning. Though sequences like this bookend the film, what occurs in between is no less respectful of the cultures which inspire the stunt work.
Impressively, the visual language of Shang-Chi does a wonderful job of capturing both the Asian influence of the story and that of the pre-established MCU. Adult Shaun, who has not yet revealed his real identity, lives in San Francisco (the home of Scott Lang, known as the Avenger Ant-Man) but, more importantly, the place that he’s settled owes a great deal of its history to the Asian immigrants who worked on the railroad and/or came to help build the West in hopes of a better life. Drawing the connection ever closer, the audience learns very quickly into the film that Katy is a second-generation immigrant — shout-out to Lucky Grandma’s Tsai Chin as Waipo, Katy’s grandmother— creating a common sense of confusion regarding which cultural identity both Shaun and Katy belong. This duality is made more obvious as Shaun accepts his born name, Shang-Chi, and, in so doing, begins a hero’s journey of personal and cultural discovery. One aspect that’s hard to ignore but is executed with delicate subtly is the formation of an magical portal: they possess shades of the interdimensional portals the students of the Ancient One at Kamar-Taj use, elevating the otherworldliness of what we see while also interlinking of the skillsets of magic welders like Doctor Strange’s Wong and Shang-Chi. As the MCU has gotten bigger, the injection of magic as become more prevalent and is only expected to be moreso ahead of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. That the magic we discover alongside Shang-Chi will come to serve as a springboard for more stories is exciting for the possibilities it can create, while it also strengthens the ideas that everything in each story is connected in some way.
For those wondering where Shang-Chi falls, we’re shown posters plastered on a wall for people seeking Post-Blip help, thereby cementing the story in a post-Endgame era, though the use of “Present Day” doesn’t clarify exactly when on the timeline (sacred or branch) we are. By the way, the way in which the film addresses the last MCU inclusion of the Ten Rings offers some much-needed closure, though I wouldn’t have minded if it also sought to address the kidnapping of Tony Stark (Iron Man) as relates to Iron Man 3 (2013) because not everyone remembers Aldrich Killian’s final line and that lack of remembrance could play havoc with the audience’s processing of the internal timeline/rules of Shang-Chi.
I cannot write a review of Shang-Chi without addressing its strongest factor. You’d think it would be the cast, who absolutely knock it out of the park, by the way, but it’s the script. Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience/Women Is Losers) is absolutely charming as Shaun/Shang-Chi, but also nails the emotional beats and physical elements. Thanks to a great deal of long takes, audiences will know that this cast is doing the majority of stuntwork, making what we see far more immersive than we’ve gotten in some time. (One of my issues with Black Widow was the frequency in which you could identify the stunt team.) Awkwafina, too, although playing into type as a bit of the comic relief, gets the opportunity to do something different here, something more grounded like her work in The Farewell (2019), demonstrating she’s a force to be reckoned with for those not yet believing. Newcomer Meng’er Zhang thrills as Xialing, offering a performance that she makes uniquely her own while her character offers commentary on the misogyny of the world. Both Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon/Crazy Rich Asians/Tomorrow Never Dies) and Florian Munteanu (Creed 2) make the most of their limited screen time and, with luck, will get even more to do in a follow-up. Leung as Wenwu is the anchor of the film and it’s with him that Shang-Chi reveals itself to be on the level of top-tier MCU films as the script by Dave Callaham (America: The Motion Picture), Cretton, and Cretton’s frequent co-writer Andrew Lanham (The Glass Castle/Just Mercy) uses the mythos of the Ten Rings to give audiences a story about legacy. Shang-Chi is running from who he was, Xialing is building something all her own, and Wenwu’s obsession for power is driven by a need to heal his family. That this all happens in a film that features mythical creatures from within the Asian diaspora, an appearance from MCU fan favorite Wong (Benedict Wong), as well as the usual world-building, boggles the mind with how well it all comes to together in a narrative that frequently caused this father-of-two of well up in response to Wenwu and his children’s terrible conflict.
Two things to note before wrapping up:
If you don’t feel comfortable seeing Shang-Chi in a theater, the film should be appearing on Disney+ roughly 45 days after the theatrical release. I’ve seen no confirmation if that’s going to be part of the subscription (like Soul/Luca) or available via Premium Access (like Cruella/Black Widow/Jungle Cruise), but at least you won’t have to wait months for home availability. Should you go to the theater, try to see it on the best possible screen you can. When screened for the press, the projection was a little dark, so the early evening, night, or just low-light sequences were a little hard to follow, especially when the climax of the film devolved into the usual CGI slugfest (brilliantly conceived as it may be), tracking everything became harder than it should have been.
All in all, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the biggest surprise of the MCU since Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 1. (2014). Partly because, in my case, I know next to nothing about the characters and their comic mythos, but mainly for how easily this could’ve been made exactly as it is, but with non-Marvel-related characters, and it would *still* be a premium cinematic experience. Much in the way The Winter Soldier (2014) is a solid spy thriller or that Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2. (2017) can be called equally hilarious and touching space odysseys, so can Shang-Chi stand on its own. But we are all the more lucky to have it, and this cast, within the MCU as they properly kick off Phase 4 in a truly unknown and new direction.
In theaters September 3rd, 2021.
Available on Disney+ 45 days after theatrical release.
For more information, head to the official Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Marvel Comics website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.