Review: Marvel’s Shang-Chi thrills but crumbles under third-act weight

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

Give the screen-writing team for the latest Marvel movie “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings” credit. Dave Callahan, Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham did a swell job of sanitizing the highly problematic Marvel property from its Yellow Peril roots, and concocted a mostly thrilling action/fantasy story that will likely play well in the United States and overseas, which is the goal of every big-budget blockbuster produced today.

Seamless direction by Cretton layers a mythic story about how a 1,000-year-old, super-powered warlord Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) turns from his wicked ways because of the love of a good woman Ying Li (Fala Chen), the magical guardian of a secret culture hidden from plain sight somewhere in Asia.

Wenwu convinces Li to renounce her heritage and join him in his world, and for a time he gives up his domineering spirit and dedicates his life to Li, and their two young children, Shang Chi and Xu Xialing. They are happy together until a tragedy strikes, which ultimately drives the family apart and puts them at odds.

The film has an epic sweep, but its humor and heart ground the movie into a commodity that’s likely to please most fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Some fans of the original comic-book material from the 1970s and ‘80s might be a little bit miffed, though. The comics were a cross between Bruce Lee kung fu films and the James Bond super-spy thrillers that were popular in the 1970s. This film has more in common with Harry Potter and young-adult fantasy than the comics’ grittier and more problematic influences.

Michelle Yeoh in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings / Marvel Studios

I write that as more of an observation than a criticism. I enjoyed the movie at least until the bloated third act that devolved the film from a crushing family drama into CGI-bloated battle between martial artists and Kaju-like dragons that was a little too similar to the finale of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series for my taste.

That said, Simu Liu is likely to become a star because of this film. He’s has a very likable screen presence, works well with comedy and drama, and comes off as an excellent martial artist.

Awkwafina’s character Katy, Shang-Chi’s best friend and possible future love interest (?), delightfully grounds the movie in a part that’s perhaps more organic than the role of Darcy played by Kat Dennings in Marvel’s Thor films, but there for the same purpose, as the eyes and ears of the audience among all the madness.

Again I enjoyed the more grounded aspects of the film than the fantasy-blowout conclusion. The martial arts were thrilling, though. An early scene were Shang-Chi must defend himself and Katy from some thugs on a bus is “Speed” on steroids.

Wong (Benedict Wong) from the “Doctor Strange” movie has a small role in the film as does the Hulk villain Abomination (Tim Roth) to create some connective tissue to the greater Marvel Universe. There are two after-credit scenes, one with a couple of cameos that could point to the next Avengers-type movie.

Overall the film was entertaining. It’s not the next great Marvel movie, but it is a solid one, and at least for me a step above Marvel’s other summer release “Black Widow.”

(PG-13) 2 hr. 12 min.
Grade: B-

New in Local Theaters

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings (watch trailer) / (R) 1 hr. 39 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Malco Springdale, Skylight, 112 Drive In

Flag Day (watch trailer) / (PG-13) 2 hr. 25 min. / Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle

Classic Corner – The Joker is Wild

Frank Sinatra and Valerie Allen in The Joker Is Wild / AMBL Productions

Frank Sinatra was a phenomenal singer and performer. Few have ever been able to wrap their voice around lyrics like him. His phrasing and timing were often flawless.

As great as Sinatra was at interpreting a tune, he also had chops as an actor. While he’s best known for his comical performances, often spotlighting his voice, he knew his way around a dramatic script, too. Proof positive is his 1957 film “The Joker is Wild,” a biography about comedian and former singer Joe E. Lewis. Sinatra excels in the role that he seems to know only too well. The movie plays on Turner Classic Movies at 9:15 p.m. Saturday.

The movie tells Lewis’ tale as he rose to be a notable nightclub singer in the 1920s before he runs afoul of the Mob in the Prohibition era. Lewis’ reluctance to throw in with gangsters results in him being brutally attacked and left for dead with his throat and face slashed.

Somehow Lewis survives the ordeal, but his voice never recovers. To make ends meet, he restructures his act into a hard-luck comedy bit. While he makes it as a stand-up comic, Lewis’ destructive habits wreak havoc on his personal life.

Mitzi Gaynor and Jeanne Crain co-star as rival love interest for Sinatra’s Lewis with all parties suffering from the interactions.

Director Charles Vidor captures the glamor and considerable grit of the era in the film that has the feel of an autobiography for Sinatra, even though we know it’s not.

Sinatra’s performances — musical and comedic – were shot in the evenings as semi-live performances, adding a natural quality to the film that was uncommon for the late 1950s. There is a barbed bitterness to Sinatra’s portrayal that’s compelling despite the drama’s downbeat nature. Sinatra is alternately sad and funny as well as sympathetic and pathetic as Lewis.

The movie garnered the 1957 Academy Award for Best Original Song for the Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn hit “All the Way.”