It’s not a crime to be late to the party; I’m sure I’m not the only one belatedly catching up with Marvel’s Asian action fantasy on Disney+ rather than seeing it at the cinema. Destin Daniel Cretton’s film took roughly 20 percent of the box-office take of the last Avengers movie, but with a pandemic raging and all, Disney will probably be happy with a $430 million worldwide gross to date given the circumstances. If nothing else, it’ll be pressed into service as a great loss leader to encourage Disney+ streaming subscribers, because everything that went wrong with the current product Eternals goes stormingly right here.
Simu Liu plays Shaun, a San Francisco valet-parker with a secret; he’s secretly Shang-Chi, the son of the master criminal Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung). In the comic book, this character was Fu Manchu, a character that is frowned on these days as an unhelpful cultural stereotype. But that’s still the kind of guy Xu Wenwu is, using the power of the mystical ten rings to bring prosperity to his empire, although not managing to save Shaun’s mother from his murderous enemies. After fighting off a gang of his father’s henchmen on a transit bus, to the astonishment of his gal-pal Katy (Awkwafina) Shaun reverts to his birth name and travels to Macau to find out why his father is contacting him; not surprisingly, the future of the earth hangs in the balance…
Shang-Chi eventually gains access to the ten rings and battles fearsome creatures from another world that burst through the inter-dimensional portal/gate that his father unwittingly opens; as legends go, the ten rings offer a suitably epic, crowd-pleasing feel. Liu is a reliable, often taciturn hero, with Awkwafina working double-time to make sure that there’s a healthy dose of comedy throughout; the scene where she discusses the obvious idiocy of Shaun’s secret name-change shows Katy would be excellent at Cinema Sins. And there’s also a welcome dose of Ben Kingsley, returning as English actor Trevor Slattery, previously The Mandarin from Iron Man 3. He’s now out of prison and hoping to continue treading the boards; his unexpected burst of Macbeth’s porter speech is something to behold.
While all the trappings are in place, Shang-Chi’s origin story is also a super-slick, streamlined affair; the exposition is chunky rather than clonky, and things really kick off visually once we travel to the remote village of Ta Lo where a menagerie of dragons and all kinds of other colourful ephemera fill the screen. All the set pieces dazzle the eye, and while as always with today’s green screen action movies, the backdrops are transparently fake and unrealistic, they pass muster here by being absolutely beautiful to look at. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of the best Marvel movies to date: fresh, savvy, often funnier than most comedies, and with a huge sandbox for the characters to explore. Even for those of us who are not in thrall to the comic book vibe, it’s a highly entertaining watch for all ages, creeds and cultures alike.