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Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings Review: Crouching Hero, Hidden Secrets

A bold, promising step forward in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" focuses on what might be the most obscure Marvel franchise to get its own movie since the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" film. But much like that movie, it brings with it characters worth knowing, adventure worth seeking, and a delightful shift in tone that will bring a distinctive new flavor to the next phase of the ongoing "Avengers" saga.

Like so many great hero journeys, this one begins with modest scenes of tedium and frustration. Shaun (Simu Liu) and his friend, Katy (Awkwafina), share the none-too-glamorous job of parking cars at a San Francisco luxury hotel, but they try their best to keep things upbeat — hanging out and signing karaoke into the wee hours despite family protestations that such behavior won't get them anywhere in life. But unlike code monkey Thomas Anderson in "The Matrix" or virologist Robert Neville in "I Am Legend," this soon-to-be-world-saver is serving as a valet as part of a hidden identity built to keep his legacy at arm's length. His family backstory contains so much dysfunctional drama that it could warrant a reality show. Sooner or later, it's bound to resurface, and one day, it does on a city bus.

In what's undoubtedly the most thrilling bus moment since Keanu and Sandra were soaring down the freeway in "Speed," a handful of men confront Shaun and Katy one day, insisting that he hand over a jade pendant. What follows is a tremendous, brilliantly choreographed fight scene that has Shaun going from timid to torrential, revealing his full range of skills to a jaw-firmly-on-the-ground Katy, who gets to do some panicked bus driving of her own. One passenger begins live-streaming it; the others runs for cover. The baddie leader, later revealed as Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), has a machete for a right forearm.

When this robbery attempt is accompanied by a cryptic piece of mail that seems to be from Shaun's sister, Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), he puts his cards on the table. His real name is Shang-Chi, and he needs to return to China to re-connect with the very wealthy, very troubled father (Tony Leung), who still mourns his deceased wife and once trained Shang-Chi to be a murderous weapon for his vengeance.

Katy comes along for the family reunion, which includes stops at an underground fight club (where fans will be delighted to see Wong from "Doctor Strange" and Abomination from 2008's "The Incredible Hulk") and another dazzling fight sequence, this one on tenuous skyscraper scaffolding in which Katy reveals her secret power — one that involves lyrics to classic '70s songs. Captain Marvel, she ain't.

This set up, and so many Marvel Easter eggs that you half-expect Kevin Feige in a bunny suit to come jumping into frame at any moment, brings us to the meat of the story. Daddy Wenwu (who is the real Mandarin, unlike Ben Kingsley's failed actor, Trevor Slattery, in "Iron Man 3") and the titular ten rings that have kept him kicking butt for the last thousand years are now on a new mission, one powered by voices in his head that sound like his deceased wife. Despite protestations from his kids and everyone around him, he's determined to journey to the impossible-to-find jungle village of Ta-Lo, battle Shang-Chi's aunt Jiang Nan (Michelle Yeoh) and her forces, and unleash a swarm of freaky monsters — all in the service of a broken heart.

You want Rings with that?

Some of these elements work better than others. Ta-Lo, for instance — hidden in the jungle and defended by natives who've weaponized the supernatural gifts of its surroundings — sure does feel a lot like Wakanda. The matching jade necklaces on Shang-Chi and Xialing that seem so precious in the first act turn out to be big nothing-burgers and hardly worth risking one's life to defend. Wenwu's mission is similarly underdeveloped. The guy is just hearing voices that aren't even very clear or depicted with any degree of imagination, and it's hard to hate on a lovestruck villain who, in his heartbroken quest, ignores warning sign after warning sign that continuing to slice into a foreboding mountain portal while things crawl out is a really bad idea.

But "Shang-Chi" is overflowing with so much personality, such humor and creativity, that the ride is worth taking even when the car tires feel a bit bald. For starters, the rings themselves immediately soar to the top of cool Marvel weaponry, if not action movie weaponry in general. Depending on the skill of the wielder, they can be thrown like boomerangs, fused together to make a Ryu-like fire ball, or even tossed mid-air to create steps a character can then run up. Put all ten rings on the same arm, and it gives the wearer a super slug that would solicit jealousy from One-Punch Man.

And if you're not already in love with Awkwafina thanks to movies like "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Raya and the Last Dragon," prepare to join the rapidly growing fanclub. Whenever she opens her mouth, she's cracking jokes about everything from Talbots to Jeff Gordon, and her carefully balanced mixture of "I can't believe I'm watching this" looks and "I'm totally into this" attitude sells the film's moving trees, headless pets, flying dragons, and other fantastical elements. She's the perfect counterbalance to Liu, a physically impressive fighter who has the moves (in spades) to pull off numerous fight scenes but also the skills to drive home both punches and punchlines.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton (the excellent "Short Term 12") embraces the cultural touchstones of these characters but keeps things light and accessible for all audiences. For instance, it's hard to remember a mainstream blockbuster with so many subtitles, but the unfolding adventure is so infectious that you'll read every one with bated breath. Plus, it's refreshing that the two main characters have a friendship rather than an immediate romance. Cretton orchestrates dazzling scenes (some with Yeoh) that rekindle the awe and majesty felt the first time "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" sky-walked into American theaters. And the fighting methods of Xialing (who has her own wonderful story of female empowerment) echo 2004's "The House of Flying Daggers in both spirit and artistry.

'I learned it by watching you, Dad!'

After the debacle of the "Iron Fist" Netflix series, it sure is nice to see a Marvel adaptation with actors who clearly put in long, hard hours of martial arts training. As a result, the film has the confidence to dial back on editing and extreme close-ups so we can witness the actors in motion. On many levels, the same can be said for the cultural sensitivity this time around, particularly in the taking back of the Mandarin character — a wonderful example of Marvel not only being self-aware enough to acknowledge a perceived misstep but play with and fix it in a way that feels both organic and satisfying. The real world is a big, beautiful place filled with cultures and colors and perceptions that add complexity, curiosity and vibrancy to all our lives. With each subsequent project, the MCU feels more reflective of that, and it's the audience who benefits.

On top of all that, if you love Marvel cameos, then "Shang-Chi" is the film for you. Aside from numerous references and throwaway lines linking back to various Marvel movies and TV shows, there are a half-dozen effective character appearances, including the return of one very relevant player. Plus, make sure to stay in your seat through the entirety of the end credits.

When all is said and done, the last thing you see is a title card saying, "The Ten Rings Will Return." Several Marvel movies have made similar boasts at their conclusions, and although each always has a tinge of "Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League" hubris, none of them has been so deserving of a cheer. Like "Black Panther" or the original "Guardians," this film feels like an aperitif before the real meal arrives, courtesy of a new realm of the Marvel universe ripe for exploration. Whether we're looking at more films in the franchise, a likely "Avengers" inclusion, or some cool Disney+ series, Shang-Chi and friends are poised to guide audiences through the next phase of the MCU — and they're so darn likable, you've just gotta put a ring on it.