Movie Review: ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ is one step forward for Asian representation but not for plot

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‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ is now playing in theaters. (Photo courtesy of IMDB)

Myles Wolf

Grossing $258 million worldwide since its release, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings” is making strides for the movie theater industry since the pandemic, but does it deserve the appraisal?

I came into “Shang-Chi” with rather high expectations. It was clear to me from its cast members, action scenes and storyline that Marvel wanted to create a film for the ages. While in many respects this works, I feel that one more revision of its script could have made for a truly fantastic film that had the right balance of action and plot.

“Shang-Chi” follows the story of Shawn (Simu Liu), who appears to be just an average valet driver. However, when he is pursued by his father and the mysterious Ten Rings crime syndicate, it is revealed that he is actually a master martial artist named Shang-Chi. Their reunion forces Shang-Chi to come to grips with his dark past and legacy in order to stop his father from unleashing an evil power that could potentially destroy the world.

The first half of the film is effective at building the plot as it teases a dark family secret that shrouds the film in mystery and anticipation. However, when the truth of that past is finally told, the outcome is not worth the wait as the second half devolves into a conventional action film with a montage of generic war-movie clichés.

While some might enjoy all the action, I found myself wanting to return to the first half where I felt that the action scenes were actually interwoven into the storytelling. All of these scenes are unique because the film smartly takes advantage of different settings that are woven into the fight choreography. My personal favorite was towards the beginning of the film where Shang-Chi must fend off a horde of goons in a moving bus while also working with his friend Katy Chen (Awkwafina) to prevent it from crashing.

The film also contains a number of unnecessary characters that should have been cut out. Most notably is the introduction of Trevor Slattery’s (Ben Kingsley) furry sidekick, Morris, who constantly breaks the fourth wall with jokes that do not land. He is not only an ear sore, but is also perhaps the worst movie creature I have ever seen, what I can only describe as an unfinished special effect that has disgusting grey fur, ugly scaled wings and no face.

In addition, Awkwafina’s performance in the film did not exceed expectations. As a charming and comical actress, I was very interested to see how her humor could be utilized in an action film. However, the script gave her very little to work with, and her character was rather dull. Regardless, I can appreciate that her role brings in a different kind of audience for “Shang-Chi” as well as Asian films in Hollywood.

Despite its downfalls, “Shang-Chi” is a film worth supporting due to its Asian representation amongst an industry that lacks it. There is a long-standing history in Hollywood of whitewashing Asian roles with white actors, and films like “Shang-Chi,” which follow in the footsteps of “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) and “Nora from Queens” (2020) are doing the very important work of putting into place better practices and representation for Asian actors in Hollywood.

Another commendable aspect of this film is the inclusion of Asian artists in the soundtrack. A number of popular Asian artists such as Rich Brown, the Higher Brothers, 88rising and Niki have contributed work to this film. Hopefully, the box office success of “Shang-Chi” will further inspire other filmmakers to continue inclusive practices.

In short, I disagree with many critics that “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a masterpiece and would only modestly recommend this film for its first half, excellent action scenes and its inclusion of Asian actors. Going forward, I strongly feel that casting Asian actors in films is a great first step, but the Asian community deserves an all around great movie, not just a great first half.

Correction 9/22/21: This article previously stated that Trevor Slatterly’s character exhibited animal features.