Benny Chan’s Shaolin is an ambitious mixture of golden-age Hong Kong martial arts movies and new-jack epics from China. But can it please audiences of either genre?
Everything in Chan’s movie is top shelf, from the full-size reproduction of the temple built and burned just for the occasion, to Andy Lau in the starring role as a ruthless general who inevitably falls and is reborn as a monk, to Jackie Chan’s extended (and awesome) cameo as a Shaolin cook. The martial arts are capably handled by Cory Yuen, who is not only an originator of action cinema’s visual vocabulary but continues to add to it from both sides of the Pacific. Meanwhile, production designer Yee Chung-Man has crafted stunning costumes for Hong Kong classics such as A Chinese Ghost Story and Comrades: Almost a Love Story as well as newer works like Curse of the Golden Flower and True Legend.
Yet plenty of movies with big budgets and dream teams have flopped due to lame characters and unfocused storytelling, and this one falters in neither department. Going into production, Andy Lau admitted he wasn’t the greatest martial artist but recognized that his character had a lot of depth and humanity. The perennial good guy seems to have a lot of fun (and restraint) playing a full-blown villain, and handily accomplishes the even more difficult task of rising above yet remaining believable.
But there are good movies and then there are good kung-fu movies. The drama, melodrama, and epic scale are present in bulk, but the martial arts are serviceable. While plenty of bodies are violently strewn around the screen without excess cg or wirework, the viewer will neither jump with excitement nor squirm with discomfort. It might just be me, but the period piece sets and ratcheting tension made me crave the crazed imagination and over-the-top intensity seen in melees from much lesser movies, sequels, and rip-offs that feature the word Shaolin in their titles. I wonder if that would have derailed the movie’s serious tone?
As the first movie made with approval from the actual Shaolin Temple since Jet Li’s breakthrough effort of the same name, Shaolin easily succeeds in capturing its balance as a pacifistic yet powerful force for peace. The general’s story of redemption is expertly told, and possibly even inspiring to victims and outcasts of today’s vicious marketplace seeking peace of mind. However, it doesn’t quite qualify for the temple’s jaw-dropping, gravity-defying, ass-whupping onscreen legacy formed by Li, Gordon Chan, Bruce Lee, and other movie monks of the past. It probably didn’t intend to be. But as a result, while fans of world cinema will be well satisfied, action, midnight movie, and hardcore Hong Kong cinema freaks may be left impressed but slightly wanting.
North American fans of epic action, Shakespearean drama, and righteous monks can finally see Shaolin on the big screen on September 9, 2011. Find your theater here and watch the international trailer here.