Yes, "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" is culturally significant, but this should not be lost: It's also a fantastic movie.
Like "Black Panther," "Shang-Chi" finds the Marvel Cinematic Universe becoming more inclusive, with a virtually all-Asian cast tackling a snappy new myth. A warrior named Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) has lived for centuries, gaining power from the titular rings (armbands, really, but "Legend of the Ten Armbands" sounds like a Pilates video).
Now a warrior has emerged to battle him: Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), a San Franciscan who goes by Shawn and spends his time getting drunk with pals when he's not showing up late for his job as a car-parker.
"Shang-Chi" is more playful than "Black Panther," closer to a "Guardians of the Galaxy" or "Ant-Man" movie. The humor comes from the unlikely heroism of the title character and from the sardonic reactions of his (platonic?) sidekick Katy, both of which emerge in an instant classic scene on a runaway bus.
A goon with a machete for an arm terrorizes Shang-Chi and Katy (Awkwafina), who thinks her pal is just a mild-mannered goofball. So her jaw drops, along with ours, when he turns out to be a punching and kicking machine. In a scene that may remind "Oldboy" fans of a masterful sequence in which the antihero takes on a succession of thugs in a long hallway, Shang-Chi dispatches the goons while Katy makes wisecracks and tries to pilot the bus through the hills of San Francisco.
That zero-to-hero moment is not the only inventive fight scene in "Shang-Chi," which puts the "choreography" in "fight choreography" (fight coordinator Andy Cheng has worked on Jackie Chan movies, not surprisingly). There's big Fred-and-Ginger energy in a forest-set "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"-style sequence in which Leung and a fierce stranger (Fala Chen) interact so gracefully that we're not sure if they're fighting or falling in love. (Both, it turns out.)
Like all MCU movies, "Shang-Chi" climaxes with an enormous battle that goes on longer than it needs to. Even so, this one feels more nimble than most. Credit the choreography again, as well as director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton's decision to rely on special effects as little as possible. They're used, of course (there's a dragon) but they feel more organic and real than those "Avengers" scenes in which one bunch of computer-animated creatures beats up on another bunch of animated creatures.
The performances are crucial, too. Liu and Awkwafina, who's more subdued than usual, are hugely likable performers and Leung is such a soulful actor that we understand exactly what drives his character to violence.
Leung is so good at conveying the notion that grief makes people do foolish things that it's actually hard to see Wenwu as a villain. That pays off in a couple of ways: a bad guy who's more complex than most and a structure that keeps surprising us because "Shang-Chi's" story arc is so unconventional. Once a dope on a bus reveals he's a superhero, it feels like anything could happen.
A couple of MCU standbys help remind us what world we're in. The Blip, when half the world was wiped out and then revived, has come up in a lot of MCU movies and it's referenced here. And there are mid-credits sequences that promise Shang-Chi will have more to do in future movies.
For once, that's an exciting prospect. Cretton was a left-field choice to direct, given his résumé of small-but-excellent dramas such as "Short Term 12" and "Just Mercy." But "Shang-Chi," whose heroes are men and women of all ages, shows he can play by the Marvel rules while pushing them in an exciting, entertaining new direction.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: PG-13 for drinking and action violence.
Where: Theaters only, in wide release.