UK Release date: 12th September 2011
Director: Benny Chan
Starring: Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Bingbing Fan, Jackie Chan, Jacky Wu, Yu Xing
Running time: 131 mins
Country: Hong Kong
Genre: Martial Arts/Biopic
Reviewer: Adam Wing
It’s been almost thirty years since the legendary Buddhist monastery in China opened its doors to Jet Li's breakout film Shaolin Temple, so it seems rather fitting that they’re at it again with Benny Chan's big budget action epic Shaolin. The destruction of the Shaolin Temple is a tale that’s been told many times before, so no prizes for guessing where we’re going on this one, but with Chan at the helm, you can pretty much guarantee that it’s going to be explosive.
Megastars Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse and Jackie Chan top the bill on this energetic offering, with Fan Bingbing, Yu Shaoqun and Michelle Bai providing worthy support. Wu Jing, Shi Yanneng and Xiong Xin Xin bring their world-renowned martial arts skills to the table, giving action choreographer Corey Yuen plenty of talent to work with. This being a well-worn tale of betrayal, power and self discovery, there’s a lot of pressure on Chan to deliver the requisite drama and emotion, but with Corey Yuen standing in his corner, at least we should have some thrilling spectacle to fall back on.
In 1920s war-torn China, ruthless warlord Hou Jie (Andy Lau on form again) is double-crossed by his trusted lieutenant Cao Man (Nicholas Tse making the most of an all too rare bad guy role) during a pivotal battle that loses him not only his wife (Fan Bingbing), but also his cherished daughter. Devastated by the betrayal, lost and consumed by the need for revenge, Hou Jie falls into a pit of despair - quite literally in fact. It’s not until a familiar looking Shaolin cook comes to his aid that events take an upward turn. Wudao (Jackie Chan) befriends Hou Jie and helps him to find enlightenment at the Shaolin temple; he’s a cook you see, not a fighter. A Jackie Chan film in which he doesn’t fight? It’s not really a spoiler to suggest that some things aren’t quite what they seem.
With the support of monks both young and old, including Jingneng (Wu Jing), Jinghai (Yu Shaoqun) and Jingkong (Shi Yanneng), Hou Jie sets out to battle the wickedly remorseless Cao Man and his gifted henchman Suo Xiangtu (Xiong Xin Xin). But not before some serious soul searching is done, ensuring that we understand just how lost our leading man is feeling. It can’t be just about the action you see, even if it is a Benny Chan film. Everybody knows that Benny can do action, especially when he’s blessed with a cast as electrifying as this one, but what are the chances of him delivering heartfelt emotion? Let’s put it this way, it’s a good job Jackie Chan’s energetic chef turns up when he does.
The plodding drama is punctuated by some stunning set pieces, a tightly choreographed blend of wire-fu and genuine martial artistry. Chan and Yuen should get together more often, because when they come, the adrenaline-pumping fight sequences are as thrilling as anything you’re likely to see all year. The carriage chase is another highlight, as is Jackie’s kooky culinary encounter with enemy troops. It’s a fun-packed moment that doesn’t quite sit with Shaolin’s over-ambitious tone, but we’re talking about an ageing movie legend kicking ass here, and for that we should all be eternally grateful.
Nicholas Tse is clearly having a great time as the films big bad, and any attempts at emotional depth are given a much-needed boost by Lau’s undeniable screen presence. It’s not that Shaolin is particularly cringe-worthy, the actors immerse themselves fully throughout, but the unfolding drama is little more than textbook stuff, and lacks the intensity of greater works. You know what you’re getting with Shaolin, and it’s fairly obvious that the meandering drama shtick is only there to plug the gaps between thrilling action and big-ass spectacle. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just not particularly interesting either. Some key moments do strike a nerve, but they’re outnumbered and out manned by a series of disengaging outbursts.
Benny Chan can do action, and Shaolin is blessed with some of the most enjoyable action sequences of the year. Benny Chan can’t do emotion; at least, he can’t do it particularly well. Thankfully, a top-notch cast is on hand to ensure minimal damage is done. With formulaic drama on one side, and exhilarating action on the other, it doesn’t take a scholar to work out who wins the war.