With this year's Lunar New Year focuses more on releasing comedies (I LOVE HONG KONG, MR. AND MRS. INCREDIBLE, ALL'S WELL ENDS WELL 2011, WHAT WOMEN WANT), it's rather refreshing to see an action adventure in the form of a big-budget, star-studded epic spectacle, SHAOLIN. The movie, is of course, a remake of 1982's SHAOLIN TEMPLE which starred the then-unknown young Jet Li. Whereas SHAOLIN TEMPLE was more on a simple storytelling approach that focused mainly on Jet Li's graceful kungfu movements, Benny Chan's version is more elaborate with a rarely-tackled theme of Buddhism playing a major part for this movie. In fact, SHAOLIN is a rare breed of a Chinese genre movie at this kind of large magnitude as it puts characters and story first, while the action is more of a second fiddle. The result is one of the more mature works Benny Chan has ever tackled, and SHAOLIN is also marks a fine if heavily flawed beginning for Chinese-speaking cinema in 2011.
The movie focuses on a ruthless and cunning warlord named General Hou Jie (Andy Lau) who only cares about expanding his iron-fist power of conquering a neighboring land across China. He's a kind of arrogant person who doesn't mind gunning down an injured enemy, and becomes ferocious whoever tries to question his authority. That person turns out to be Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), Hou's second-in-command and protege who mostly does the dirty work. Cao remembers what his mentor used to say to him: “If one doesn’t kill off his enemy when he has the upper hand, he’ll be dead". And that particular word of wisdom has encouraged him to turn the table against him at the least suspecting moment. During a meeting between Hou and his sworn brother over a power struggle goes awry, Cao Man takes his opportunity to betray him at all cost. As a result, Hou's precious daughter ends up dead and his wife (Fan Bingbing) hates him very much. Riddled with guilt, Hou turns to Shaolin temple, the sacred place he has previously causing trouble earlier on, and seeks refuge there. Most of the Shaolin monks, including two seniors (Wu Jing, Xing Yu) are not particularly welcomed his presence but their old master strongly believe that Hou ends up at Shaolin to seek redemption one way or another. Under the guidance of an outcast Shaolin cook (Jackie Chan), Hou is slowly turning himself into a good person. Hou is even goes as far as shaving his head and vows to become a monk. In the meantime, Cao has finally gained the upper hand and starts to conspire with foreigners looking to prey on the Chinese. In exchange of his gratitude, he gets an abundant supply of Gatling guns.
Spirits of Buddhism, while other themes of retribution, redemption and karma are portrayed in an earnest manner here and those are part of the unique structures that shaped Cheung Chi-Kwong, Zhang Tan and Alan Yuen's meaty screenplay. No doubt it's a good attempt to make this otherwise straightforward kungfu action adventure all the more meaningful. In fact the story is almost echoed the likes of Jet Li's FEARLESS (2006).
Too bad the movie is burdened by its own weight of the story. It's just too preachy in most parts and simply overlong. This also comes as a typical mistake Benny Chan never fails to achieve like his past efforts. Just about everything here he loves to magnify those melodramatic sense of impact as much as possible, and at times, he has little sense of restraint when he needed to do the most. Not surprisingly, the characters are mostly a mixed bag. Make no mistake, it's not that their acting are bad. In fact, some of them are exceptionally credible but majority of them are actually lackluster. Casting an acting heavyweight in the form of Andy Lau instead of a martial-art superstar like Jet Li in the original version is certainly a novelty and a refreshingly change of pace. His first collaboration with Benny Chan since their 1990's evergreen A MOMENT OF ROMANCE is quite an inspiration here that they should work together more often. Lau's layered performance from an arrogant general to a redemptive kind-hearted monk is equally well-handled. For the martial-art actors, the likes of Wu Jing and Xing Yu, are well-cast for their required roles. But there are some disappointments as well: Nicholas Tse is glaringly over-the-top as the movie's chief villain. It's hard not to laugh at his character trying too hard to be a despicable bad guy with natty uniform and strangely unkempt look of a street gangster. Then there's Fan Bingbing, who is neglected to a thankless role as -- what else -- an estranged wife and a damsel-in-distress we have seen her many times before. In an extended cameo appearance, Jackie Chan make quite an impression (who originally had a bigger role but greatly reduced due to his heavy commitment for last year's THE KARATE KID) as a kind-hearted cook who doesn't know how to fight. His subdued performance is no doubt a refreshing change of pace, following his different approach of acting (SHINJUKU INCIDENT, LITTLE BIG SOLDIER, THE KARATE KID) and it's still not without his own moment of excitement -- a crafty action scene where he stops a bunch of evil soldiers by using kitchen equipments.
Speaking of action, this is where the movie truly excels. Thanks to Corey Yuen's nifty action direction, with slick choreography by veterans Yuen Tak and Li Chung-Chi, the action sequences are graceful and exciting. Notable fight sequences that involve Wu Jing, Xing Yu and Xiong Xin Xin are entertaining sight to behold. Other than that, there is an earlier spectacular set piece involving a pair of horse-riding carts colliding against each other along a tight and winding road at the edge of the cliff. Production-wise, the technical credits are top-notch especially with a rare on-location shoot at the sacred Shaolin temple that added all the more authenticity look of the movie.