By Lynn Venhaus
Now in Phase 4, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has given their “Master of Kung Fu” comic book hero his own action movie, and this visual effects-martial arts extravaganza has its plusses and minuses.

Shang-Chi is the son of the immortal Wenwu (Tony Leung), who possess the Ten Rings with magical powers that offers immortality to its owner. After vanquishing his enemies, Wenwu searches for the hard-to-find kingdom of Ta Lo and gets more than he bargained for – meeting the love of his life, Li (Fala Chen), who is the fierce guardian.

Fast forward to modern times, and their son, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), must confront the past he thought he left behind when a mysterious organization draws him into its web.

Let’s hear it for taking a leap into highlighting Asian performers, and the cast overall is a sturdy one. Likable Simu Liu makes for an appealing, yet typical, reluctant hero, while Awkwafina stands out in a slacker-sidekick role, as his best friend Katy.

However, the backstory is dense, for the ancient Chinese mythology goes back more than a thousand years. Besides, Ten Rings is also the name of a nefarious global crime organization that has been referenced in the movie that kicked off the MCU in 2008 –“Iron Man” and its third movie and “The Incredible Hulk.” In addition, other MCU movies “Doctor Strange” and “Avengers: Endgame” have included mentions of characters, too.

If you are familiar with all 24 MCU films and the four television shows now on Disney Plus, you will be at an advantage here, but it’s not a deal-buster. To learn more about how Shang-Chi fits into the bigger MCU picture, be sure to stay for the credits – like we’ve all been trained to do — and a few Avengers will pop into view.

Back to where we pick up the next generation of Asian actors. In present day, dear old dad Wenwu tracks down his two children– son Shang-Chi, now a parking valet in San Francisco who goes by the name Sean, and his sister, Xialing (musical theater actor Meng’er Zhang), who runs an underground fight club populated by hulking beasts and nefarious sorts.

In the first thrilling action set piece, Sean and Katy face off against Dad’s henchmen on a careening out-of-control city bus. Katy, also underemployed parking cars, tags along to Macao, which is on the southern coast of China.

For those of us not familiar with the comic book and unaware that the dad was originally Fu Manchu, we have a lot to wrap our heads around, and mixing the past with the present can get laborious.

As we find our way in an alternate reality and immerse ourselves in an elegant Eastern world, we enter some sort of parallel universe with strange creatures. And lo and behold, there is Ben Kingsley, who played “The Mandarin” but was really a dim British actor named Trevor Slattery in “Iron Man 3.”  

He seems to be poorly used and in the way. But the Oscar winner and esteemed British thespian is amusing. Perhaps he will jog your memory.

Another blast from the past is the appearance of Benedict Wong, the sorcerer in “Doctor Strange,” who makes a few cryptic remarks. Look for him to be back if there is a sequel. And “The Abomination” too.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton is an odd choice to helm a Marvel blockbuster, for he started out in indies, and after his breakthrough “Short Term 12,” with breakout star Brie Larson (now Captain Marvel), directed “The Glass Castle” and “Just Mercy.” However, he is of Asian descent, and was tapped to pull the MCU into the 21st Century of diversity and inclusion, so bravo for that.

The jury is still out on his acumen filming action scenes. He has chosen to bombard us with computer-generated images and very busy visual effects while we sort out who’s who and what’s at stake.

That said, there are some stunning scenes with water and an elegance projected that’s rare for superheroes trying to save the world.

Cretton co-wrote the script with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, and MCU’s penchant for inserting comical interludes happens with wise-cracking Awkwafina – that really is her sole purpose. And she lightens the dark mood considerably.

This is a big film with big themes and a sprawling cast. At times, it feels too much like video game action – beasts fight in flight and these scenes go on way too long. The movie clocks in at 2 hours and 13 minutes.

The family dynamic is intriguing and could have been better served with more character interaction. After all, dad is still an evil terrorist. Sure, he might have veered off-course after his wife died, but what is the deal with him trying to steal the amulets she gave the kids? I sense that dad can’t be trusted.

Casual viewers may prefer to figure out the connections rather than be pummeled with incessant dragon action – and it would be a shame to derail a project that tries hard to move the genre forward leaving behind troublesome Asian stereotypes.

Hopefully, joining Team Shang-Chi will be a fruitful journey.

Tony Leung as Wenwu

“Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” is an action-adventure fantasy that is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed b y Destin Daniel Cretton, it stars Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley, Benedict Wong, Meng’er Zhang and
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language, it has a run time of 2 hours and 13 minutes. It was released in theaters only on Sept. 3. Lynn’s Grade: C+

By Lynn Venhaus
Attorney Bryan Stevenson’s own account of the Walter McMillian case, as recorded in the 2014 bestselling nonfiction book “Just Mercy: A Tale of Justice and Redemption,” is faithfully adapted on screen by writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton.

After earning a law degree from Harvard, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) sets up shop in Alabama, focusing on defending wrongly condemned Death Row inmates, and finding out many were not afforded proper representation.

McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is one of his first cases. He is sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old girl. Evidence overwhelmingly proves his innocence, but it’s an uphill battle because of racism and legal and political maneuvering.

While the film is basically a legal procedural, it pushes buttons – frustration, anger and a clear indication that justice is sometimes only for those who can afford a good lawyer.

Cretton, along with screenwriter Andrew Lantham, depicts the harsh reality of dealing with black-and-white issues in the deep South (and beyond) as it methodically details the ‘cover your ass’ local good-old-boy police and legal system.

What elevates this film, however, is the acting. With the customary outstanding portrayals one expects from Michael B. Jordan and Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, we are presented with the ‘so-what’ obstacles that have led real-life hero Stevenson to overturn convictions of dozens of innocent people.

The McMillian case, detailed on “60 Minutes,” is so obvious in its railroading of an innocent man that the struggles seem more outrageous as the film weaves its matter-of-fact account with all the subtlety of a freight train collision.

The supporting cast also excels in bringing clearly defined characters to life – especially Rob Morgan and O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Death Row inmates Herbert Richardson and Anthony Ray Hinton. Brie Larson, so good in Cretton’s film “Short Term 12,” conveys activist Eve Ansley’s plight as a Southern wife and mother.

Versatile character actor Tim Blake Nelson delivers one of his finest performances as a key witness, Ralph Myers, whose original testimony helped put McMillian in prison.

Stevenson’s work, through his Equal Justice Institute, shows how badly the criminal justice system is broken – more criminal than just – and the filmmakers have done a public service by bringing it to our attention.

“Just Mercy” won the Audience Award at the St. Louis International Film Festival in November. It’s easy to see why it strikes a chord with anyone who believes in truth and justice.

This image released by Warner Bros Pictures shows Michael B. Jordan, left, and Rob Morgan in a scene from “Just Mercy.” (Jake Netter/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Genre: Drama, True Story
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson, O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Rated: Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets.
Lynn’s Grade: B+

A version of this review was originally published in the Times newspapers.