Does this martial arts tale of redemption and war in the midst of Shaolin monks and bloodthirsty warlords provide a worthwhile martial-arts drama, or does fall on its own sword? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
Directed by: Benny Chan Written by: Alan Yuen
Starring: Andy Lau - Hou Jie Nicholas Tse - Cao Man Jackie Chan - Wudao Wu Jing - Jingneng Xing Yu - Jingkong Fan Bingbing - Yan Xi Xiaoliuna - Shengnan Shi Xiaohong - Song Hu Hung Yan-yan - Suoxiangtu Yu Hai - Shaolin Abbot Chen Zhihui - Huo Long Yu Shaoqun - Jinghai
Running Time: 130 minutes
Rated R for violence
To many Westerners, the terms "Shaolin" and "martial arts" are virtually synonymous. The Shaolin Monastery at Song Shan in China has long been known for its Buddhist monks and the particular style of Kung Fu that they practice. The truth of the matter is somewhat more complex of course, but it doesn't change the fact that when you say Shaolin in front of your average North American or Western European, it's likely to conjure up images of David Carradine in Kung Fu or the Shaw Brothers martial arts films of the 1970s. Shaolin has an enduring legacy in martial arts films; in fact, the revival of the Shaolin Monastery in the early 1980s is credited heavily to the Shaw Brothers' 1982 film The Shaolin Temple, which starred none other than Jet Li in his first role. Many films of the same vein have followed over the past three decades, and it is this rich tradition that filmmaker Benny Chan has added his latest film, Shaolin too. Starring Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse and Jackie Chan, the film makes its North American debut this weekend in the hopes of building on the success it has thus found overseas.
The film, set in the 1920s during the rise of the Chinese Republic, stars Lau as Hou Jie. Hou is a general for one of the top warlords who are ravaging the nation in their bid for control, and is known for his violent, ruthless ways. As the film opens he has seized control of Dengfeng, a city located near the Shaolin Temple and when his defeated rival flees to the Temple for sanctuary, Hou follows to finish him off and through a little ridicule at the Buddhist monks who make their home there while he's at it. But things are not all rosy for Hou either; despite his success he finds himself at odds with his sworn brother and deputy, Cao Man (Tse). Cao wants more than what Hou is willing to offer and when Hou sets a trap to kill a rival, Cao uses the opportunity to betray Hou and try to kill him.
The now-deposed general soon finds himself needing the aid of the very monks that he so recently ridiculed, and only through the support of the temple's abbot (Hai) and the cook (Chan) does he get a chance. Hou begins his quest to find himself through the teachings of the monks, but before long Cao's ambitions threaten not only the temple but the entire area. It falls upon Hou and his newfound brethren to stop Cao, and for Hou to come to terms with the mistakes of his past as well.
Despite some attributions to the contrary in certain places online, Shaolin is not in fact a remake of The Shaolin Temple. Director Benny Chan has stated that his film is inspired by the Shaw Brothers' film, but notes that "we have tried not to replicate what Jet Li accomplished almost thirty years ago." Instead, the script by Alan Yuen uses the famous temple as a backdrop to tell the story of a man's redemption and his attempts to find his way through forgiveness. This is certainly not a new theme to films, or to wuxia films for that matter. The theme means that the film focuses its character development largely on Hou Jie and the question of whether he can find his redemption. Andy Lau adds depth to this central storyline with his tormented portrayal of Hou and makes it work at times where the writing fails somewhat. The period of Hou's emotional struggle dealt with too quickly; a montage of training scenes dispenses with his transformation too quickly. But Lau carries the dramatic weight well and makes it work.
The rest of the acting is also generally good, albeit in underwritten roles. Nicholas Tse has the biggest challenge has he seeks to make Cao Man more than a one-dimensional villain, and he manages it fairly well. Less can be said about the actors cast in the roles of the villainous foreigners, who are practically mustache-twirlers in their utter villainy. Wu Jing, Xing Yu and Yu Shaoqun are all fine in the roles of the three senior monks who embark on a Robin Hood-style mission early on and eventually have to come to accept Hou Jie's metamorphosis. Fan Bingbing is underutilized as Hou's wife, but she is a joy to watch when she is on the screen. Jackie Chan's performance as the non-martial artist cook provides much of the comic relief, which often seems out of sorts with the rest of the film but also prevents it from becoming too dour.
As for the action, it is as good as you would come to expect from a cast and crew such as this. Corey Yuen choreographs the fighting and effectively draws upon the skills that wowed North American audiences in The Matrix and X-Men. One highlight include the large battle sequence at Hou Jie's betrayal which includes military men with guns and battle axes, Shaolin monks with their staves and Lau; another is Chan's one martial arts scene where he quite amusingly uses the tools of his character's trade--his cooking table, a giant wok and a stirrer--to use against the soldiers while the adolescent students direct him on what to do. The fight scenes are nothing ground-breaking, but they're enjoyable.
One of the hallmarks of a good wuxia film are the production values, and that's no exception here. The production had to create a full-scale replica of the Shaolin Temple from 1920, before one of the many times it's burned down. The work was obviously quite detailed and the set looks fantastic. Anthony Pun's cinematography may not compare favorably with those most Western audiences may know like Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but it is still top-notch work. The film is CGI-free, meaning all of the visual effects were handled practically and it gives the film an urgency that you just can't achieve with a computer.
The film is certainly not flawless. The final act builds to a relentless climax and while the technical aspects are impressive, it seems almost too intent on battering the viewer's hopes down. The pacing for the film is uneven as well; amidst the action sequences and Hou Jie's quest for redemption, there is an almost jerky variation in the speed at which the plot moves along. But the end result is a strong film that not only delivers on the spirit of the Shaolin philosophy, but also manages to tell Hou's quest for redemption without dipping too far into melodrama.
The 411: Benny Chan's Shaolin is a solid film for those seeking a good martial arts drama. The film is not as action-packed as some may hope but there's enough fighting to appease the majority while Andy Lau and Nicholas Tse deftly portray the battle of forgiveness in the face of ruthless betrayal. While the pacing falters at times and some of the characters could have used some more depth, the film is still quite enjoyable and well worth seeing if you get the opportunity during its theatrical release.