Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, review: it’s love at first fight with Marvel’s new hero

Simu Liu as the hero of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings - Marvel
Simu Liu as the hero of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings - Marvel
  • 12A cert, 132 min. Dir: Destin Daniel Cretton

With respectful apologies to the Marvel superhero Shang-Chi, he’s an unknown quantity right now to vast swathes of the filmgoing population – including myself, until I settled in for the unexpected blast that is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

His “Who’s that?” status is about to change. As an attempt to elevate yet another character into the pantheon, the film could simply have dished out nerd-service extraordinaire. How great that zero familiarity with this reclusive kung fu legend is needed to have a pretty excellent time.

The tough job falls to me, because it’s hardly possible to introduce Shang-Chi (genial Canadian ex-stuntman Simu Liu) more successfully than the film itself does. Here goes: using the alias Shaun at the start, he’s a parking valet in San Francisco, with a buddy/co-worker called Katy (Awkwafina) and no evident family. In fact, he’s the son of a 1,000-year-old criminal warlord called Wenwu (Tony Leung), aka The Mandarin – a replacement in the film for Shang-Chi’s traditional dad in the old comics, the by-now-thoroughly-cancelled Fu Manchu.

The deal between this estranged father and son, and what happened to Shang-Chi’s late mother Jiang Li (Fala Chen), is explained piecemeal, in a particularly skilful front-foot approach to keeping things alert, rather than bogging us down with mystical backstory.

True, before Shang-Chi pummels any of his dad’s thieving henchmen with both feet at once, we get to see his parents spar in a stunning pugilistic ballet. Call it love at first fight, with this pair flaunting some of the sickest moves in an ancient bamboo forest since Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers.

After a brutal childhood training in martial arts, which he has repressed to pursue a normal life, Shang-Chi’s hidden talents are unleashed all at once when he and Katy get attacked by goons on a runaway bus, and the film really hits its dizzy stride.

This outrageous set piece drops a cute nod to Speed when Awkwafina – the film’s quipping, uncommonly charming answer to Sandra Bullock – grabs the wheel. Liu is too busy fending off a bearded giant called Razor Fist (former heavyweight boxer Florian Munteanu), who has a machete for a right hand.

We hop, in time, to Macau, where Shang-Chi finds his intractable sister (Meng’er Zhang) to save her from another threatened ambush. If anything, the bus hoopla is even topped here by an escape sequence on high-rise scaffolding, all flipping wooden planks and flailing limbs, which had me let out at least one involuntary whistle of kudos.

Simu Liu and Awkwafina in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings - Marvel
Simu Liu and Awkwafina in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings - Marvel

The cyberpunk stylings of Macau’s night-time scenes make for a cool contrast with, say, the whizz-bang overbrightness of Spider-Man – and the film’s whole proposition is much stronger than anything the gawky Black Widow had to offer.

It helps to have, in Leung, a world-class actor playing a shaded villain who even manages to be moving, and the always welcome Michelle Yeoh, who brings a dash of her Crouching Tiger sternness to his sister-in-law. For nutso comic relief, there’s simply no beating Ben Kingsley, reintroducing Trevor Slattery, the absurd Scouse thesp who was hired to play a fake Mandarin all the way back in Iron Man 3 (2013).

The best thing about Destin Daniel Cretton’s blockbuster is how confidently it goes its own way: these call-backs to surrounding Marvel lore are sly without being smug, at least until the obligatory end-credits gesture ushering Shang-Chi into the fold.

The big showdown in a sacred Chinese mountain village is, perhaps ominously, an all-guns-blazing effects lollapalooza, with raining fire arrows, two dragons, and basically the kitchen sink chucked in. By some miracle, though, it doesn’t succumb to the noisy fracas that even made parts of Black Panther get tiring.

The emotional heavy lifting – father/son, brother/sister, Awkwafina finding her own inner warrior queen – has all been done to buoy it. There are moments of peril that come off beautifully; then a very funny back-to-reality postscript; and a crafty sequel-begging twist I didn’t guess tucked at the very end of the end credits. It’s Marvel doing what Marvel does, but getting almost everything right this time – and that’s rare.