A Film by Disney, directed by Destin Cretton
Continuing my holiday weekend “Catch-up-a-thon” on Disney+, I was able to finally watch Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, as I didn’t want to mess around with going to theaters when it originally dropped. It’s funny I saw this now, as I was remarking to one of my friends that we don’t really have a “current” superstar “martial arts guy” at the moment. guys like Jet Li, Chuck Norris, and Jackie Chan are all retired now, Tony Jaa somewhat fell off of the “leading man” pedestal and is now relegated to being a henchman in action movies, I guess one could argue Donnie Yen, but he’s no “spring chicken” (58 years old), and isn’t a superstar in terms of the above. Little did I know that I may have just seen my answer, and it’s an unlikely one.
“Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS stars Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, who must face the past he thought he left behind and confront his father, leader of the dangerous Ten Rings organization. The film also stars Awkwafina as Shang-Chi’s friend Katy, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, and Florian Munteanu, with Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan and Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu. SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and produced by Kevin Feige and Jonathan Schwartz, with Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso and Charles Newirth serving as executive producers. Both the screenplay and the screen story are by Dave Callaham & Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham.”
Prior to the filming of this, Simu Liu wasn’t even trained in martial arts! Wait doesn’t that go against what I just said up top? Nope, not at all! I would argue that most of the guys in big martial arts films in the U.S. in the past weren’t really trained either. This is likely not something many want to hear, but guys like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Pat Morita, Keanu Reeves, Steven Seagal, and David Carradine weren’t really all that great in terms of actual fighting ability (although Seagal thinks he is), but became popular as they starred in solid films.
Liu and his co-stars got extensive training by famous fight choreographers, and ended up with some solid skills fake or not. With that in mind, I hope Liu keeps this trend going, peppering action films into his yearly output. I know he usually acts in dramas and comedies, but you can tell he’s chomping at the bit for this, and wants to keep the momentum going. Awkwafina was pretty good as the main female protagonist, and despite hearing her name I was unfamiliar with her as an actor – she seems pretty funny! Finally, we have Meng’er Zhang and the legendary Michelle Yeoh rounding everything out, all of which give great performances.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings initially takes a somewhat large departure from the “MCU Formula”, opting for some pretty interesting martial arts fight scenes. It wastes no time showing the “origin” of the main characters, instead opting for a series of flashbacks to flesh out Chang-Shi’s past life as a boy trained in the ways of a shadowy assassination squad. I liked this because there is nothing I loathe more than a long drawn out first act in these sorts of films, where we see basically the same origin that almost every superhero has and all of the action is crammed into the very end and feels rushed. This refreshing change is somewhat undone at the end, as we see your typical Marvel climax, but I’ll forgive it, as I have no idea how the film would have made sense otherwise.
We actually have a fairly compelling villain in this film with Chang-Chi’s nigh immortal father, Xu Wenwu AKA The Mandarin as portrayed by Tony Leung Chiu-wai. The Mandarin? Wasn’t he the villain in Iron Man 3? Well, yes and no – Iron Man 3 had two Mandarins, firstly we saw a fake one played by Ben Kingsley, a man pretending to be the leader of a multi-national terrorist organization, but actually an actor. He was hired by The “real” Mandarin, a businessman played by Guy Pierce in a role that divided fans immensely. In Chang-Chi, we learn that Wenwu has had possession of a set of ancient weapons called The Ten Rings for over 1,000 years and has been called many things by many groups of people including “The Mandarin”. Pierce’s character pretty much liked his logo and the idea of his organization and plagiarized it at one point, royally angering Wenwu.
I absolutely LOVED this revelation, and feel that Marvel found the perfect way to imagine Chang-Chi’s father as something other than a racial stereotype. In the comics, his actual father was a man named “Fu Manchu”, a character based on the old supervillain “Dr. Fu Manchu” from endless movies in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Fu Manchu was basically a stand-in for every bad stereotype that Westerners had for Asians at the time, “The Yellow Peril” – especially that they were criminals up to nefarious schemes at all times, so you can see why this was dropped.
The Mandarin is actually an entirely separate character that did, in fact, have ten magical rings – however in the comics they are more like rings that shoot powers out that he wears on his fingers, and perhaps were too similar to the infinity stones to consider. Even he was somewhat of a racial stereotype, and was based on that original Fu Manchu or Meng the Merciless archetype. By combining the characters and “cleaning up” his origins, Marvel did the right thing and created a great villain that stands out as one of the best in the entire film line-up.
Speaking of fake Mandarins, I was especially happy to see Ben Kingsley actually reprise his role as Trevor Slattery, the actor that played the fake Mandarin. We find out that he was abducted after his prison stint by assassins with the intention being executed by Wenwu himself. It seems he was particularly angry due to the appropriation and slander found in his acting gig. Trevor, however, fumbled his way into becoming something of a “court jester” for The Army of the Ten Rings, and was kept in a dungeon with a mythical creature he calls Morris.
Trevor is pretty funny, and acts as a great comic relief character that easily steals every scene he is in. There’s a particularly worrisome scene where it appears that Trevor has been killed, with a grief-stricken Morris trying to wake him up. Trevor looks up and explains that he was only doing a performance due to how cowardly he is. I now want a whole movie of characters like Trevor, Korg, Luis from Ant Man, etc. no matter how bad that would actually be!
The end of the film is a tad predictable, but I loved the whole thing, and feel like it’s on par with the first Guardians of the Galaxy as biggest surprise film for me. I truthfully haven’t really followed the comic character at all, and only knew him as a footnote in Marvel encyclopedias up until now. Disney did an amazing job having a nearly full Asian cast that makes sense, and creating a new hero that seems to have won the entire internet over. I know this film was likely made to pander to the Chinese Market despite China banning it entirely, but it’s not as hollow as the last time they did that with Raya and the Last Dragon. I absolutely can’t wait to see where these characters end up, and I may have to start watching stuff like Kim’s Convenience and Crazy Rich Asians to see where and Awkwafina and Simu came from.