'Shang-Chi' movie review: Great potential, not realised

'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings' movie review: Great potential, not fully realised

Despite a strong start and a very explorative middle, 'Shang-Chi' wobbles at the final act, leaving some great potential untapped

Shang-Chi's journey as a hero takes second place to his journey as a son who is in pain over the loss of his mom and aching for his family to be together. Credit: Marvel Studios

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Cast: Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Meng'er Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley

Score: 3.5 stars

Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not just the first Asian-centric film in the MCU, filled with amazing use of Asian culture, it's also one of its most remarkably mundane efforts.

Well, I say mundane, but that's merely in comparison to its last known solo character film, Captain Marvel, to say nothing of the event that was Endgame (though, strictly saying, these two cannot be compared on face value).

Shang-Chi is not necessarily a character a lot of people know about unlike Iron Man, but then again, neither were the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Marvel has, by this point, made it almost second nature to get people to be glued to the movie. This was most apparent when the Marvel Studios scroll played at the beginning of my screening, actually making me think for one second that "yep, the movie drought is hopefully coming to an end".

What followed was (almost) two hours of what is effectively one of the best Asian-centric action movies I have seen in years, and 20 minutes of that movie, which had till then an almost eclectic mixture of comedy, drama, melancholy and action all bundled together bumble like an infant as it fell into the trap of fighting CGI monsters, making me feel truly sad - this movie could have been so much more if it focussed on Shang-Chi and his father, the real Mandarin (not the actor from Iron Man 3).

Speaking of the Mandarin, the movie takes, as it has before, its own spin on the character and his abilities. In this case, we refer to the ten rings he wears on his hands rather than his fingers, and which don't necessarily have the same level of oomph as the ten rings from the comics. Yet that is not particularly grating, as this man - Wenwu - shows a clear mastery in using them, and has a cunning, power-mad streak to him that the series has not seen in a human character since Obadaiah Stane in the very first Iron Man.

Yet behind all his bravado and his power, he is much like any man, yearning to be with his family. In this case, it's his dead wife, who was an anchor to him towards being a decent man. The film does a lot of interesting things with Wenwu hearing his wife call to him, setting up a potentially powerful presentation of a man suffering from loneliness and with too much power on his hands, but instead takes a decidedly more 'safe', though not uninteresting route. Props to Tony Leung for his masterful portrayal of the character, giving him a dimensionality not frequently seen in Marvel.

On the other hand, Shang-Chi is a character who is in many ways like his father, but with his own distinct personality. He, who was trained to be a killer, struggles to grow beyond the shadow of his father, which forms a crucible for him to earn his place not only as a hero but also one who will probably have a great impact on the future of the universe. But his journey as a hero takes second place to his journey as a son who is in pain over the loss of his mom and aching for his family to be together, and Simu Liu presents a sublime balance of these facets, making him truly a multi-layered character like his father. The same can be said about his sister Xialing, who also carries many of the same struggles as Shang-Chi, and faces the burden of being looked down upon due to her being a girl, and goes through her own personal crucible of earning her place as an equal participant in the family's affairs.

The film, to say the least, has some of the best action choreography from a Western studio making an Asian film. It mixes mystical powers, hand-to-hand combat and some really tight camerawork to make the whole thing flow to the extent that it's almost jaw-droppingly insane. Right from the first fight in a bus on the roads of San Francisco, to more personal encounters, later on, it leaves no stone unturned in maximising its use of Asian aesthetics and sensibilities to portray what could very well be art.

It also features the return of Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery, who with the aid of a literal faceless CGI creature, pulls out one of his best comedic acts in years, never missing a beat at creating some of the best comedy Marvel has ever seen.

Yet the flaws are glaring. Despite a strong start and a very explorative middle, the final act of the film wobbles on its feet as it takes a more generic route to bring the conflict to a head, rather than putting all the focus on the father and son's chequered history. This ultimately leads to a needless faceless CGI horde sequence, though the movie almost manages to redeem itself by somehow giving a good confrontation between the hero and his mirror. There are times where their confrontation almost takes on the level of depth seen in 'The Return of the Jedi,' yet it feels like it's never fully realised as its own thing, leaving an empty feeling at the close.

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