I wish I could say that I was a huge fan of martial arts and Kung Fu movies.
That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed a few of them along the way. There are notable exceptions such as the movies of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. Astonishing physical prowess and movie action inventiveness always work for me.
Not so much for ridiculous wire stunts like the ones seen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). I know, that’s heresy. Even I was puzzled at my lack of response to the film.
I actually went back to see it a second time, just to discover what all the rave reviews were about. I still didn’t get it.
I offer that in the way of full disclosure and honesty.
So, I braced myself for the screening of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It looked like a blend of martial arts action with superhero superpowers and indestructibility. In my books, that was two strikes against it.
But it was a Disney movie and there was a lot of buzz, not all of it being positive, unfortunately. (I’m referring to all the fallout over a Disney executive referring to the movie as “an experiment”).
Still, the trailers looked promising, despite the magical properties of the aforementioned ten rings that bore some resemblance to other supercharged superhero jewelry like Wonder Woman’s bracelets.
Much to my surprise, the opening of Chang-Chi, despite the obligatory back-story set-up, was actually pretty solid. It was the story of two mythical warriors, a man and a woman, who meet and fall in love.
Their offspring, a son and daughter, inherit their legendary, combined powers.
In the case of the son, Shaun/Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), the powers are kept hidden, even from his bubbly girlfriend Katy (Awkwafina). Both are bright young people with tons of potential who are wasting their lives away as lowly, unappreciated parking lot attendants.
Things are downright dull until Shaun is attacked one day on a city bus by a group of highly trained thugs who are after the strange necklace that Shaun’s mother once gave him.
Much to Katy’s shock and awe, Shaun springs into action with martial arts moves, the likes of which she has never seen. It’s a white-knuckle scene, with a raging fight taking place on a bus that careens down steep San Francisco streets in heavy traffic with no one at the wheel.
Despite Shaun’s hidden skills, the necklace is stolen, sending him, and his tagalong girlfriend on a journey to reunite with his estranged sister who wears an identical necklace. We learn that the two necklaces can never fall into the wrong hands, without dire consequences on a massive scale.
Without giving away too much, the two are reunited, though not happily at first, and find themselves quickly joining forces to ward off the unstoppable ninja-style warriors.
The fight that follows is one of the most spectacularly-staged and photographed pieces of action in modern cinema. It’s a tour de force, not only in the cleverness of the fight choreography but also the elegant, elaborate, floating camerawork that captures it all.
The visuals are dazzling. The movie takes these stock scenes to new, exhilarating heights as the heroes and villains fight and fall down the rickety scaffolding on the side of a very tall building. It’s truly breathtaking.
And so, the first hour or so of Shang-Chi, gets off to a very impressive start. The thrills are non-stop. The technical credits are rock solid. You’re in for the ride, and it seems the roller coaster is just beginning to roll and gain momentum.
But then something odd happens. Upon being reunited with their powerful, mysterious father (played by Tony Chie-Wai Leung) they are introduced to an offbeat, elder British stage actor played by nonother than Ben Kingsley who arrives ostensibly to interject some additional comedy to the mix.
It’s a sore thumb moment when you might expect to hear an audience to collectively say “huh?”
Stranger still is the introduction of actor’s fantasy pet, a faceless, headless ball of rabbit fur with two flapping chicken wings. It’s a moment on a par with the bizarre introduction of the Ewoks in the Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi (1983).
More precisely, the realization that potential toy merchandising revenue got in the way of serious artistic vision or plain common sense.
It happens here. And this is precisely the moment when Shang-Chi comes to a screeching halt before running off the rails into a full-blown train wreck. Yes, the plot continues, but it lacks the energy and freshness of the first half of the film.
Instead, it degenerates into any one of the stock, murky, confusing, over-staged Marvel finales in which you can barely make out what is happening.
There are opposing armies doing innumerable wire stunt martial arts moves. There is a dragon. Actually, two dragons.
But, despite the resources of Disney money or special effects capability, neither looks nearly as convincing as the dragons featured in the HBO series Game of Thrones (which may have set the bar for digital Dragon rendering, at least for the time being).
In the end, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t a totally bad movie.
The first half of it is pretty dazzling and worth seeing. Just grab your popcorn and head for the exit when the weird creatures start to show up.
The only thing you’ll miss is the now-predictable Marvel Universe post-credit scene setting up a possible sequel. The Legend of the Eleven Rings?
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens in theaters September 3.