It is perhaps a measure of the relatively low expectations I have for Hollywood-made kung fu flicks that one of the main positives I had for this movie was that Carl Douglas' Kung Fu Fighting song was not heard anywhere in the film.
Fortunately, that was not the ONLY positive thing about Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) 25th film, which not only delivers another solid entry into the franchise, but also a kung fu movie that, well, kicks butt.
When we first meet him, Simu Liu’s (of Kim’s Convenience fame) titular hero is working as a car jockey in San Francisco alongside his best friend Katy (played by Awkwafina), who is blissfully unaware that the man she knows as ‘Shaun’ is actually Shang-Chi, a master of kung fu.
Shang-Chi had been trained to be an assassin by his father, Wenwu (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai, more on him later), leader of a shadowy organisation called the Ten Rings, named after the ten magical armbands he wields, which also make him immortal.
Six years after running away from his father and the Ten Rings, Shang-Chi’s past catches up with him when the organisation comes looking for him and his younger sister Xialing (Zhang), and they are forced to help Wenwu in his search for a mythical village called Ta Lo.
Despite the criticism that MCU movies have become formulaic and predictable, it is still a formula that works incredibly well. In fact, you could say that Kevin Fiege and Marvel Studios have refined said formula down to an art form, to the point where they don’t even need to dedicate an entire movie to a character’s origin story any longer.
They did that with Spider-Man (though with two hugely successful franchises behind him already, Spidey isn’t exactly an ideal case study), Black Panther (to a certain extent), and now, Shang-Chi, who comes to us as a fully formed master of kung fu (albeit with his backstory told in flashbacks).
This was probably a good idea, considering how his comic book origin story was quite a controversial one. Shang-Chi made his debut in Special Marvel Edition #15 back in 1973, created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin. Back then, he was the son of Fu Manchu, a villain that was based on a somewhat racist Asian stereotype at the time.
It is to the credit of director Destin Daniel Cretton and writers Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham that Shang-Chi manages to embrace the Asian roots of the character while rarely falling into the stereotypical tropes of past portrayals of Asians in Hollywood.
As someone who grew up watching the likes of martial arts stars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen regularly, it was surreal to watch this. At times, it was hard to believe that a Hollywood movie, let alone a Marvel superhero movie, could get so much right about the genre.
Like many of Hong Kong's best classic action movies, the action is fast-paced and exciting, and the fights manage to incorporate both grittier and more brutally physical street level fights with the more fantasy-like wuxia style.
This is still unmistakable a Marvel movie though, and you still get a sense that you are watching a classic martial arts movie that has been put through an Instagram filter, with the action polished to within an inch of its life to give us the equivalent of a glossy, fashion magazine version of a Hong Kong kung fu movie.
At the same time, Liu does a great job as Shang-Chi, handling both the action and the quieter moments well. But though he and Awkwafina have top billing in the film, they can only do so much against the might of not just one, but two Asian screen legends in Leung and Michelle Yeoh.
Leung is easily the best part of this movie – it is impossible to take your eyes off him every time he is on screen, and with his hypnotic, almost effortlessly cool portrayal of arguably Marvel’s most well-developed and nuanced villain yet, Leung underlines just what Asian movie buffs have known all along – that he is a screen icon on par, and even surpassing some of Hollywood’s best.
Yeoh is equally magnetic as Shang-Chi’s aunt and guardian of the village of Ta Lo, commanding attention in every scene she is in.
It is the presence of these two Asian screen icons, and Cretton’s deft direction that sets Shang-Chi apart from recent MCU movies. It feels fresh and familiar at the same time, managing to be a great standalone kung fu genre movie that also fits perfectly as another piece in the greater MCU puzzle. And best of all, it will probably change the perception of Hollywood towards the genre that probably everybody WILL be kung fu fighting soon.
Kung fu gets Marvel-lous