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‘Shang-Chi’: Marvel offers beauty, humor and cool combat as a villain’s son fights his way to heroism

The wonderful cast is led by likable Simu Liu as the everyman on a mission, the magnificent Tony Leung as his father and Awkwafina as his friend who acts like Awkwafina.

The hero of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (Simu Liu) is pulled into the supernatural world of his warlord father.
Disney

Razzle dazzle — with a ton of heart and a generous sprinkling of warm humor. That’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” right there.

You might not know a whole lot about the Marvel Universe character of Shang-Chi, who has a relatively obscure and somewhat complicated history, as he was the son of the fictional Dr. Fu Manchu, a character steeped in stereotyped Chinese villainy. No expertise required, because “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” while firmly planted in the Marvel Universe, works perfectly fine as a stand-alone origins story. Director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Just Mercy”) has fashioned a visually popping fable with a wonderful, Asian-led cast, a screenplay brimming with sharp and funny dialogue, and some pretty cool fight sequences.

More good news: Shang-Chi’s father has been reworked and renamed, and is played by Tony Leung, one of the finest actors in the world.

Leung’s Xu Wenwu is a legendary and to some eyes mythical warlord who for centuries has maintained possession of the 10 rings — glowing bracelets he wears that make him immortal, invincible and capable of great feats of power (and lead to some impressive visual effects). Entire armies don’t stand a chance against Wenwu, who has grown increasingly arrogant and ruthless over a period of 1,000 years.

This all changes when Wenwu discovers a magical land called Ta Lo and meets its beautiful and peaceful guardian, Li (Fala Chen). Over the objections of the citizens of Ta Lo, who want nothing to do with this bloodthirsty warlord and fear he’ll ruin their idyllic outpost, Li marries Wenwu, and he takes Li from Ta Lo so they can start a new life, with Wenwu vowing to retire from the warlording business to become a loving and tender husband and father.

Glowing bracelets give invincible powers to Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), Shang-Chi’s father.
Disney

THAT all changes when Wenwu’s past comes back to haunt him and Li is brutally murdered. Wenwu returns to his life of crime and violence, all the while teaching his young son Shang-Chi (played by Jayden Zhang as a boy and Arnold Sun as a teen) how to become a killing machine.

Cut to present-day San Francisco, with Simu Liu (“Kim’s Convenience”) now playing the 30ish Shang-Chi, who has renounced his father’s evil ways and has cut off all ties with the family and has even renamed himself Shaun, as he leads a normal and borderline dull life as a parking valet who finds something comforting about the routine of his job and likes to spend his nights having a few drinks and singing likes to sing karaoke with his best friend Katy, and it’s pure gold to have Awkwafina playing Katy.

Shang-Chi’s friend (Awkwafina, left) joins him in meeting his long-lost sister (Meng’er Zhang).
Disney

Shaun and Katy are happily underachieving their way through life when a band of thugs attacks Shaun on the bus, leading to the best battle-on-the-bus hand-to-hand combat sequence since “Nobody” from earlier this year. Turns out Shaun has some mad fighting skills, and now he’s fighting mad at his father for sending these goons after him and in particular the green pendant his mother gave him as a child. Shaun reveals his true identity to Katy (who cracks wise about his half-hearted name change), and the next thing you know they’re off to Macau, where Shaun/Shang-Chi seeks out his long-lost sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who runs an underground fight club that’s actually way ABOVE ground — at the top of a 100-story skyscraper that’s still under construction. This leads to a wildly entertaining fight sequence on some wobbly outdoor scaffolding, with gorgeous cinematography by Bill Pope.

With Doctor Strange’s valet Wong (Benedict Wong) and “Iron Man 3” figure The Mandarin/Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) making key cameo appearances along the way, “Shang-Chi” eventually takes us back to the land of Ta Lo, where Shang-Chi’s aunt, Jiang Nan (Michelle Yeoh), and her fellow villagers are preparing for an attack by Wenwu and his warriors. (Why is Wenwu hell bent on attacking Ta Lo? Let’s just say he believes he can resurrect his deceased wife via a method that is more likely to unleash a gigantic and evil beast that will pretty much destroy the world if set free. Bad plan, Wenwu!)

Leung is a magnificent presence, commanding every scene he’s in as Wenwu, who still might have a father’s heart beating beneath all the vengeance and power he’s wrapped himself in for so many years. Simu Liu has a likable, everyman persona, but he’s a believable action hero as well, which makes him a great choice to play a likable everyman who becomes a superhero. Awkwafina does her thing and does it as well as ever, while Meng’er Zhang is so strong we’d like to see Xialing get her own showcase film. “Shang-Chi” gets a little bogged down in the grand finale, which features an overlong and typical MCU battle featuring all manner of otherworldly creatures and bombastic special effects — but the journey to that final destination is fantastic.