Here’s a prime example of Roger Ebert’s rule: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.”
In its broad outline, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (Disney-Marvel, 2021, 130 min.) isn’t all that different from “Snake Eyes,” the G.I. Joe spin-off that was in theaters earlier this summer. They both feature an Asian cast, the origin story of a conflicted hero with daddy issues and lots and lots of fighting sequences. The main difference is that “Shang-Chi” is fun to watch, while “Snake Eyes” was not fun to watch.
The film opens with an atmospheric prologue in Chinese with subtitles, almost a fairy tale about Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) discovering the ten rings that line his arms, giving him immortal power; he starts his own evil army and rules for a thousand years. In a stunningly beautiful courtship battle reminiscent of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “House of Flying Daggers,” he meets Ying Li (Fala Chen) and they fall in love and start a family: Shang-Chi (Simu Liu as an adult) endures years of fight training before escaping to San Francisco under another name. The rest of the film involves him and his best friend-would-be-girlfriend Katy (a very funny, goofy turn by Awkwafina) going back to his former life and defending his family.
I wouldn’t want to reveal too much more about the plot, which is what makes the movie feel different from other Marvel movies while still reworking the tropes of the genre, like training sequences, establishing a cool costume and the like. Right now, “Shang Chi” feels like pretty woke entertainment, supporting its mix of fresh faces and veterans with a good sense of humor, and grand spectacle and appetite for fantasy in its action sequences. And not for nothing, but there is a fight scene set on a San Francisco bus that is the best thing of its genre since “Speed” back in 1994.
Marvel is very smart about finding clever ways to connect any new film to other established characters in the MCU in a fun, inclusive way. It’s all about planting seeds, so I’ll only spoil one seedling because it makes sense for those who remember the Ten Rings storyline from Shane Black’s “Iron Man 3”: Ben Kingsley returns to give another delightfully comic turn as the hambone actor Trevor Slattery. Kingsley has a speech about “Planet of the Apes” that might be the funniest single moment in 2021 film, and the filmmakers have gifted him with a wacky little pet, a headless cross between a pig and a hawk that is initially off-putting but somehow becomes cute and endearing.
By the way, I haven’t gotten around to writing about Marvel’s “Black Widow” until now. “Black Widow” was…OK. Not one of the best MCU movies but not as bad as the first two Thor pictures by any means. David Harbour was a hoot as Russian superhero Red Guardian, and there’s a gag involving a helicopter landing that might be the best gag in the movie. Mostly I think “Black Widow” will be remembered in the future as the film that introduced Florence Pugh as Black Widow’s sister Yelena as another trained Black Widow. The movie certainly sets her up as yet another formidable, talented MCU adversary.
RIP: Jean-Paul Belmondo (“Breathless,” “Le Doulos”)
RIP: Michael K. Williams (“Inherent Vice,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Community”)
RIP: Michael Constantine (“The Hustler,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Thinner”)
RIP: Art Metrano (“History of the World, Part 1”)