Directors: Benny Chan and Cory Yuen
Starring: Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Tse, Wu Jing, Li Bing Bing
Another nationalist, feuding-warlord Chinese martial arts import, historic epic “Shaolin” delivers moderately on the expectations its core demographic might likely have, but otherwise does little else to distinguish itself for a broader audience. Ambitiously staged set pieces fall victim to portentous technique, creating an ultimately irreconcilable chasm between how much one wants to like this movie and how much they actually do.
A kind of spiritual rebooting of Jet Li’s 1982 classic “The Shaolin Temple,” the film unfolds in the early days of the Chinese republic, as various warlords look to expand their power bases and land. When the ruthless General Hou Jie (Andy Lau), whose ruthless sieges often draw no distinction between soldiers and innocent civilians, is betrayed by his sworn brother and second-in-command, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), he’s forced into hiding. Rescued from a wandering death by Wu Dao (Jackie Chan), Hou takes refuge with a group of Shaolin monks at their hidden mountain temple. As days turn into weeks he finds himself more at peace with their way of life. Cao, however, tracks him down and seeks to finish Hou off. The monks, however, are prepared to defend themselves with their unstoppable shaolin kung fu.
“Shaolin,” photographed by Anthony Pun (“New Police Story,” “Empire of Silver”), is often gorgeous to look at, but it suffers overall from sluggish pacing and tiresome symbolism. Cory Yuen — whose graceful, elegant and lightning fast fighting approach has become the sine qua non of modern martial arts film style — oversees the movie’s action sequences, which generally work quite well, staged as they are to encourage edits on breaks and turns rather than actual engagement and hits. Co-director Benny Chan, meanwhile, oversees everything else, but overindulges in slow-motion shenanigans that often seem at odds with the nature of the material.
Lau has a certain dark charm that he bends nimbly to his character’s arc, and it’s interesting to see Chan serve a story in more of a supporting role. At over two hours and 10 minutes, though, “Shaolin” drives home every moralizing point regarding corruption and personal hubris with a kind of stultifying gracelessness. The action, meanwhile, becomes progressively less spry and engaging, finally topping out in an overblown finale that abandons precision and fumbles away care. Unless you’re a diehard martial arts fan, these aren’t the monks you’re looking for.
Written by: Brent Simon