The Muni-kung fu-swordfight-car chase scene on SF hills is well worth the price of admission, but the rest of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is, well, up and down.
San Francisco film fans’ excitement kicked up last October, when a big-budget action movie car chase scene was filmed in Russian Hill. SFist confirmed this was for the upcoming Marvel Comics flick Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, bringing the kung fu character into the constantly expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. When the Shang-Chi trailer dropped in April, comic book nerds and transit nerds alike rejoiced that there was a kung fu car chase on the 1-California Muni bus, and this film’s premiere was immediately circled in our datebooks.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings premiered last night, and is now playing at Bay Area theaters. But it’s only a “San Francisco movie” for about the first 30 minutes, after which it trots the globe and then goes off into a magical forest dimension, often getting bogged down with the bloated formula you expect from the Disney-Industrial Complex.
The absolutely glorious Muni car chase fight scene comes roughly 20 minutes into the movie, lasts 8 minutes long, and fully deserves its early praise as one of the greatest San Francisco car chase scenes ever. In addition to highly satisfying carnage, it's packed with inside-joke Muni references, digs at tech culture, and smartphone gags. Yes, there are geographically implausible location leaps, but there's so much whimsy and adrenaline in the scene that anyone’s disbelief will be delightfully suspended.
We do get some exterior shots of the Fairmont Hotel and Chinatown (which SFGate reports was actually the Richmond), and the introductory aerial drone shots of local landmarks that establish these events are taking place in San Francisco. But the principal stars Simu Liu and Awkwafina may not have ever even set foot in the city, it appears their scenes are just edited and weaved into the exterior shots. (The IMDb locations for Shang-Chi only list San Francisco for “second unit stunts.”)
After the film leaves San Francisco, director Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy) deftly mixes up the comic book formula with elements of gangster movies, Chronicles of Narnia-style fantasy, and Crouching Tiger-inspired martial arts scenes with sweeping ballet movements and meditative character development over the course of the fight. This largely works quite well, until the final 30-ish minutes turn into some wholly unnecessary CGI dragon nonsense that will have most people, outside middle school kid and MCU stan demographic, sighing and wondering, “Will this thing just end already?”
Awkwafina is funny, though not Crazy Rich Asians funny, but she’s the tonic this movie needs in the latter half when it takes itself too seriously. Ben Kingsley — of all people! — also capably carries some comic relief duties, and Michelle Yeoh shows up to do exactly what you would expect Michelle Yeoh to do. And yes, this being a Marvel Comics movie, there are bonus “stinger” scenes after the credits (there are two, stay for the whole credits), but these are unremarkable, and are just there to establish there will be a sequel. As if that were a question.
There are many reasons that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a cause for celebration. It’s the first primarily Asian cast comic book film of the big-budget U.S. franchises, a welcome sight after a terrible year for the Asian-American community. Large portions of this film are in Mandarin and subtitled, it’s a proudly Asian-American film. It heralds the return of movies being made in San Francisco after the COVID downturn, so there is a very significant matter of civic pride here. But Shang-Chi is ultimately just another comic book movie, and most Bay Area viewers will only be interested in its first half-hour.
And hey, you can watch just the first half-hour and then put on something else! Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will be streaming for free on Disney Plus on October 18, just a month and a half from now. You may opt to just wait til then.
Images: Marvel Studios