Directed By Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring – Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung
The Plot – Shang-Chi (Liu), the master of unarmed weaponry-based Kung Fu, is forced to confront his past after being drawn into the Ten Rings organization.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and adult language
– Riveting action. Without question, the highlight of the movie for me, and one that brings with it an abundance of artistic expression, was the non-stop thrill ride of many diverse set pieces that were expertly crafted with vulnerability for these masterful fighters. Aside from the variations of many backdrops and environmental influences like a bamboo construction zone or the crumbling persistence of a city bus, it’s the various techniques and kung-fu styles for the fight choreography itself that is swiftly illustrated with enough speed and engaging velocity to constantly capture your attention, all the while photographed with little to no difficulty in telegraphing along the way. Much respect goes to the intricate sound design of the production, which captures versatility in its distance that lesser helmed films often undervalue, but what impressed me most was the believability of the cast themselves, who clearly worked around the calendar to transform themselves into these dangerously vicious personalities capable of using any environmental element to gain an advantage.
– Cultural essence. Marvel is all about detailed world-building in its films, and while we don’t have to reach far in capturing the uniqueness of China in the foreground of this story, it doesn’t mean it’s lacking anything of fantastical escapism because of such. In fact, it’s that identity that the movie’s designers and Cretton take great value in, bringing with it a rich sense of heritage that plays beautifully with the neon-infused backdrop of the business district. The costume and set designs permeate with a geographical radiance that feels unlike anything previously established in the many world’s within this universe that these colorful characters come from, and Cretton’s use of shadow fighters in the luminescence offers a faithful homage to Kurosawa films without feeling weighed down by the intention turned into obligation with his direction. It makes for a fully realized idea that prescribes to the diversity that the MCU needs now more than ever, all the while reaching across the aisle and speaking to a particular audience that have unfortunately been subjected to various white-washing and cultural appropriation previously.
– Compelling story. “Shang-Chi” is many complex genres and meaningful themes rolled into one spell-binding presentation, that often tugs at the heart strings at its very best. For my money, the story flows best and offers its most seamless connective tissue when it’s a family drama persisting in current day, which occasionally offering flashbacks at the movements and decisions that defined these once prosperous people. In addition to that, it’s obviously a superhero narrative, realized in the many tropes that unfortunately do weigh down the originality of the picture, which I will get to later. Finally, the elements of its kung-fu epic certainly aren’t undervalued, capitalizing on decades of pre-conditioned cinema, and realized for PG-13 Marvel captivity in a way that doesn’t feel limited in violence, nor conflicted from connecting sifting through the various themes periodically throughout the narrative. Instead, it offers many character arc’s and ensuing subplots that mostly pay-off superbly for the integrity of the picture, and gives us one of the more deeper-immersed investments in the exploration of this cinematic universe.
– Breaking the curse. Sadly, one of the problems that Marvel rarely nips in the bud is its abundance of underwhelmingly practical antagonists that never connect seamlessly with the audience. This fortunately isn’t the case with this film, as Wenwu is not only one of the better illustrated villains within its last 13 years of productions, full of fully realized motivations and internal conflicts that coherently outline everything we need to understand about the character, but also maintaining a grip on the humanity of his candor that shows us the humanity inside that is screaming to get out. If it isn’t enough that the character has aspirations and dreams that don’t just fully subscribe to world domination and evil for the sake of being evil, it’s ten times more meaningful that he is the father of the titular character, and one whose mental advantage bears the kind of weight from within that give way to an entirely bigger boogeyman that Shang grew up imposed by.
– Shining ensemble. The casting for this film is perfect. That’s even to be said with Awkwafina, who, outside of her star-making turn in 2019’s “The Farewell”, isn’t always conveying of my favorite kind of schtick for comic actors. Here, she maintains the timing in familiarity that has made her a household name, but cements value in such a declaration that affords her as the top-blowing pay-off to many tense and urgent physical sequences, in which the audience is practically scraping for release. On top of her, Simu Liu bottles a brash physicality, endearing emotional depth, and charismatic cadence to Shang-Chi that constantly maintains the heart of the character throughout some challenging defining moments in his mold, and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung is a constant scene-stealer whose influence can be felt on an environment long after he’s left framing. Like “Black Panther” it capitalizes on cementing a culturally appropriate consistency, all the while churning out no shortage of breakthrough performances in a film titled by one name, but one whose impact is felt by many.
– Ambitious cinematography. As far as the photography work in and around any MCU property, “Shang-Chi” may be superior against all opposition. I make this risky claim for the magnitude of creative lenses and cerebral movements of the camera that make for some challengingly jaw-dropping moments that are typically reserved for Oscar-worthy cinema. One such example takes place in one of the various flashback sequences throughout, when Shang is forced to witness his father fulfill his blood vendetta, and we’re brushed away to Shang’s reaction, which is persisting while the conflict does in a series of mirrors that hang just behind him. Examples like those are littered everywhere throughout the film, but never in a way that repeat the stylistic choices that further enhanced their depiction. They shapeshift in the same ways that the set pieces do, adding a further-immersive level of production that puts us in the shoes of those involved, without compromising the clarity of the depiction.
– Moving forward. “Shang-Chi” feels like the first film of the MCU’s Phase 4 that is a legitimate step forward in the unraveling of the storytelling, without feeling weighed down by the obviousness of its connectivity. This is to say that there are some surprises unloaded at the delight of audiences who have been starving for familiar presences since “Avengers: Endgame”, but they’re incorporated in a way that doesn’t take the focus or attention away from the pivotal leads of this particular story, instead using them to give voice and conscience to the outside world still persisting around this majestic China. Because of such, as well as two very meaningful post credit sequences, we see the pieces forming into something bigger just off in the distance, but never in a way that takes away the urgency and stakes of what constantly hang in the balance before us, making for an experience that is just as responsible as it is entertaining.
– Artificiality overload. Easily my biggest problem with the film, and one that took away from the ingenuity of the finished product, was the abundance of C.G-heavy properties and effects work that didn’t always bring with it something believably immersive. To say that some of these designs were bad in any movie would be doing them enough justice to bring attention to them, but considering this is a Marvel movie, with a budget bigger than the U.S defense account, it’s even more problematic. Don’t get me wrong, my problem isn’t with its use, but rather how much of it takes away from the authenticity of the engagements, especially in the aforementioned bus action set piece, that any moviegoer can look at, and spot the outline of the live action actor in frame being pasted into an environment that he isn’t naturally articulating with. There’s simply too much of it, especially in a movie with already breathtaking captivity in hand-to-hand physicality, instead serving as one of the unnecessary ways that Marvel can overinflate its budget to what really shouldn’t be the finished product of lukewarm designs.
– Same as the old boss. It pains me considerably to convey that even in a movie with so much originality going for it, it’s the tropes of familiarity that are most memorable. If you’ve seen one MCU movie, you’ve seen them all. Things like comic-heavy exposition to fool audiences into having a good time, bizarre creature designs to sell toys, and a full-blown fight finale that throws everything at the screen, which in turn takes away the compelling intimacy of the father/son dynamic. Believe me when I say there’s many more, but these elements alone could easily be phased out of this next phase of cinematic features, but it proves that Marvel has had such very little confidence in the allure of its characters since the overtly-comic “Guardians of the Galaxy”, and so much so that it has shaped every since it to be tonally identical (See Thor Ragnaork for further clarification). When the comedy does work, it’s during these down moments of release for characters engaged in various near-death battles, but at its worse, it’s in the middle of an enthralling investment, which takes attention away from the vulnerability, all in the name of never testing audiences to feel uncomfortable from feeling questionable about their favorite character possibly biting the dust. It’s frustrating.
– Occasional speedbumps. While most of the pacing for the 128 minute run time is seamlessly pleasant, there are a couple of moments during the second act that grind the momentum to a screeching halt, at the arrival of a familiar character who I was anything but stoked to see. Marvel, as well as various moviegoers have been justifying this character for nearly a decade, and while his meaning to this film far exceeds that of the original one he accommodated, it still isn’t without problematic chaos to the occasion. At this moment in the film, every element of storytelling or world-building stops, and we’re left once more with atmosphere-chewing acting and untruthful characterization from them that doesn’t offer anything of redeeming value or meaning as to why they were included. In fact, the movie thinks so as well, allowing this character to disappear repeatedly for long stretches of time during the movie, only to bring him back in ways that disappointed my hope that he finally disappeared. These scenes can certainly be cut from the finished product, especially when you consider the sum of their parts leads to the only moments during the film when I was legitimately losing interest.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-