I’m somewhat late to this but the word is that Shang-Chi has been one of cinema’s biggest hitters – though the three other people in the audience for my showing doesn’t exactly suggest that Cineworld is being overrun.
This film is an important addition to the Marvel Universe in the same way that Black Panther was – and those like me, who are old enough to remember the impact made by the original Bruce Lee films, will understand how important it is that American Asians have their own superhero to root for. So here he is, played by the extremely likeable Simu Liu as ‘Shaun,’ an unassuming lad working in a valet at a hotel in San Francisco, parking the cars of rich customers, ably assisted by his best friend Katy (Awkwafina).
But Shaun has a secret. He isn’t quite as unassuming as he appears. He is, in fact, Shang Chi, the son of the ruthless – and immortal- Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), the possessor of ten mystical golden rings that give him the power of a thousand men, enabling him to vanquish entire armies single-handedly. Always a useful thing. But when Shaun is attacked by a bunch of armed warriors on a bus, who have been sent by Xu to steal the fancy green amulet that Shaun has worn since he was a little boy, he begins to realise that his toxic dad is seeking to renew their acquaintance – and that Shaun’s sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), is probably going to be drawn into his father’s orbit too. It’s time to stop pretending and step up to face the consequences.
The film opens well (once we’re past a rather po-faced introduction) and the aforementioned bus punch-up is nicely done, with Awkwafina providing some much-needed comic relief as the put-upon-friend in a difficult situation, but it isn’t very long before Shaun and Katy are off on a mission to the mystical village of Ta Lo, where an ancient community lives surrounded by mystical creatures and a helpful water dragon. They also meet Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), a former actor, who can somehow talk to mystical creatures. (Again, file this one in the comic relief section.)
From this point, the story seems to ramp up the pomposity, as Xu Wenwu, who believes he’s being summoned by his late wife, arrives with an army of warriors in tow, intent on setting free an ancient evil dragon who has been locked away in some forbidden cavern… and a massive cosmic punch-up dutifully ensues.
I have to say that, in the film’s latter stages, it loses me somewhat. The stodgy, leaden feel of the story makes two hours seem like three and I feel sorry for the wonderful Michelle Yeoh, who is saddled with a ‘wise auntie’ role and is therefore required to say something profound every time she opens her mouth. While it’s clear that much money has been lavished on the CGI budget and it’s certainly a handsome film, but the final dragon-on-dragon conflict just seems cumbersome and goes on and on, until I’m reduced to checking my watch at regular intervals.
A final coda, with Benedict Wong summoning Shaun and Katy into the extended Marvel Universe, doesn’t feel remotely enticing and I’m unlikely to watch whatever comes next.
In the end, Shang Chi‘s main failing is that it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. As a kung fu kick- about, it works well enough, but director Destin Daniel Cretton seems intent on making it more than that, overburdening the film with meaning in order to cover all the bases and – for my money at least – he doesn’t really succeed.