Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings doesn't feel a lot like a Marvel movie, although it's clearly been made on a Marvel budget. The picture is a lot of fun, even if it isn't overflowing with the sort of slick comic banter that's become a Marvel trademark. And since it's based on a relatively obscure Marvel character (although one that's had much involvement with the comic book Avengers over the last nearly 50 years), it feels fresh, and it's exciting in a new way.
This is a credit to the story and script—both written by Japanese-American director Destin Daniel Cretton and Chinese-American screenwriter Dave Callaham—and to the film's two leads: Simu Liu, a little-known Canadian actor, born in China, who plays Shang, and ageless Hong Kong eminence Tony Leung, one of the world's great movie stars, who plays Shang's dangerous dad, Wenwu. The picture would be worth seeing just to watch Leung command the screen every minute he's on it.
Shang was originally conceived at Marvel as the son of the old pulp-fiction villain Fu Manchu, an emblem of "Yellow Peril" racism early in the last century. That connection wouldn't fly today, so now Shang is presented as the son of an evil Chinese overlord, The Mandarin (Wenwu's bad -guy handle), a character thousands of years old, who raises the boy to become an assassin. When Shang discovers his father's true nature and the part he played in the death of his mother (Fala Chen, seen in flashbacks), he runs off to San Francisco for several years and winds up working as a hotel car-park valet together with his friend Katy (Awkwafina). This relationship—if it can be called that—is the movie's weakest component. Since there's not a whisper of romance between these two characters, and since Katy is of little interest in her own right, you wonder why she has been inserted into the story at all. (And, since she's a Berkeley graduate, why she has decided to park cars for a living.)
There's not much time to be annoyed by such things, though. After filling us in on the titular "Ten Rings"—not really rings, actually, more like magical statement bracelets—we join Shang and Katy aboard a New York City bus for a terrifically flashy fight scene featuring a very big, very bad guy (Florian Munteanu) with a machete affixed where his right hand should be. Liu, a martial arts aficionado and a stuntman as well, is totally persuasive here—you wouldn't want to be anywhere near his feet or fists when he's in a butt-kicking mood. Even better than this scene is one a little later in the film, set high up on the rickety scaffolding of a building in Macau, in which cinematographer Bill Pope (who shot the Matrix movies) manages to create some crazy camera angles without, presumably, getting any of his crew killed.
The movie begins with a memorable rush of action and atmosphere, so it's disappointing to watch it deflate a bit, as the end draws closer, and succumb to Marvel's usual riotous bloat. After delivering a procession of memorable images—a spray of loose leaves circling in midair, a mountain village fashioned on the magical model of Rivendell, a sinister, shifting forest with a mind of its own—Cretton, possibly under protest, wheels in the big guns: Dragons! Demons! Murderous soldiers in service to Shang's dad!
Overblown-yet-fizzly endings are standard with Marvel films, but Shang-Chi is one of the company's best non-sequels in quite a while. There'll surely be a followup, and I'd like to recommend what it should be. Shang has a sister named Xialing (Meng'er Zhang). Like her brother, she ran away from home as a teenager—ran away to start a fight club in Macau! Let's hear it for Xialing!