China in the early twentieth century is a land of strife, starvation and feuding warlords. Hao Jie (Andy Lau) is one of the strongest and most ruthless among them, even going so far as to kill an enemy within the walls of the sacred Shaolin temple. Together with his right-hand man, Tsao Man (Nicholas Tse), he murders and maims his way across the country with impunity. But his greed reaches its limit when bloodthirsty ambition combined with an act of betrayal destroys his family and leaves him for dead.
Wounded and emotionally devastated, Hao takes refuge with the only people that will have him… the Shaolin monks.
He can’t hide from his past forever though, and soon the new man he claims to be is forced to face the world of bloodshed he once called his own. Joining Hao in the fight are the honorable, ass-kicking monks and a wise-cracking cook (Jackie Chan), but will they be enough to defeat the new warlord hellbent on their destruction?
Shaolin is the latest film to tell a tale of China’s legendary monks, and it’s easily one of the best. The most well known until now was probably Jet Li’s The Shaolin Temple, but while the two are arguably comparable in the action department this new incarnation trumps them all when it comes to the drama and character work. It’s rare to find an all-out action film where consequences, heartbreak and redemption are handled with the same effort and care afforded to the fights and stunt work.
Lau is a big reason for the film’s success as he brings acting ability along with capable fight skills. His body double steps in for some of the more extreme and impressive action, but while Lau still manages to do enough to impress he makes up for that gap with an alternately bad-ass and heartfelt performance.
Supporting performers are equally enjoyable including Jackie Chan’s turn as the cook who first befriends Hao. The role highlights what makes Chan a star by focusing on his charisma, shadowed sadness, and still impressive ability to make combat both playful and entertaining. Wu Jing plays one of the monks, and while he doesn’t get a fight anywhere near the awesomeness of his alley brawl with Donnie Yen in SPL he still manages to win fans with his moves and smile. Fan Bingbing’s role as Hao’s wife is even smaller, but it’s impossible to look away from her stunningly beautiful eyes when she’s on screen.
Director Benny Chan has been making films for over two decades, and while he’s always been hit or miss the last ten years have seen a steady stream of solidly entertaining action flicks. At least until last year when he released the godawful City Under Siege. The Aaron Kwok-starrer was bad enough to almost wipe out any goodwill earned by his previous films, but now with Shaolin Chan looks to be back on his game in a big way.
Shaolin is epic action that does just about everything right. The fight scenes, both big and small, are fierce and beautifully shot by action director Cory Yuen. The performances are strong and charismatic across the board from lead characters on down to the little girl portraying Lao’s daughter. And the story manages to weave in emotion, warmth and morality without ever feeling maudlin or getting in the way of the ass-kickery.
The Upside: Fantastic action in both hand to hand fights and larger set-pieces; real heart and drama at the core of the characters; Fan Bingbing is almost as talented as she is gorgeous
The Downside: Shockingly, the real bad guys are the white foreigners; Lau’s body double is occasionally too obvious; the horses look to have had it pretty rough
Shaolin is currently in limited theatrical release. It will also be available on Blu-ray/DVD in the UK starting September 12th from CineAsia.