Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Shaolin is strictly not for the faint-hearted.
The story is wrought with tragedy, the action sequences are nail-biting and the performances are gut-wrenching. Not things you’d expect from director Benny Chan, who bounces back spectacularly from last year’s cinematic joke City Under Siege.
Adapted from Zhang Xinyan’s 1982 classic The Shaolin Temple, which catapulted Jet Li to his kung-fu guru pedestal, Chan’s version is edgier and decidedly more visually arresting; drawing out the best of its ethereal rural location in China’s Henan Province. Dispensing with all the CGI nonsense films of late are so fond of, Shaolin (wisely) chooses instead to go back to basics with old-school martial arts choreography.
Similar to 2008/2009’s blockbuster franchise Red Cliff,Executive Producer Han Sanping’s latest projectbasks in a star-studded cast line-up. But unlike the former with its intricate plot twists, Shaolin is more human-centric than art-of-war. Hou Jie (Andy Lau) is an arrogant warlord whose ruthless streak earns him numerous conquests in battle. As he gallops off on a power bender, he also grows increasingly paranoid and seeks to obliterate anyone he thinks has their eye on his land – including his sworn brother (Shi Xiaohong). Hou Jie devises an ambush to assassinate him but is eventually double-crossed by his trusted second-in-command Cao Man (a surprisingly compelling Nicholas Tse). His young daughter Sheng Nan (Xiaoliuna) is killed in the crossfire, leaving his wife (Fan Bingbing) so devastated that she flees from him. Utterly broken and left with nothing but his shredded pride, Hou Jie seeks refuge and redemption in the Shaolin monastery – a place he had brutally scorned before.
Films with such religious overtones often tread the fine line of being enlightening and overtly preachy, something that Shaolin has outdone itself by handling with earnest aplomb. Buddhist teachings of compassion overwhelming the fruitlessness of violence and anger (that scene with the young monks is particularly tear-inducing) are constantly at the fringes of the story, but never feel like they’re slapping you in the face, making Hou Jie’s transformation from a cruel war monger that more plausible. Andy Lau delivers his emotional nuances magnificently, further cementing his triple-threat, Heavenly King status – seriously is there anything the man can’t do? With that being said, Nicholas Tse is the real magic hat, taking a break from his usual tortured-hero roles and pulling a solid performance as the tyrannical, Hitler-inspired Cao Man. Jackie Chan provides some welcome comic relief and slick kung-fu entertainment as the laid-back resident chef at the monastery. However, it’s Qing Neng (Beijing-born action star Wu Jing), Hou Jie’s righteous senior who will truly steal your heart and breath away with his exhibition of moves deft enough to give Jet Li a run for his money.
Cory Yuen’s (Lethal Weapon 4, X-Men, Red Cliff) action direction also never loses steam throughout the 2.5 hour long film; from the perilous horse-carriage chase scene, to the Shaolin monks’ nifty wushu displays and epic final battle. And despite being scored within an inch of it’s life by rousing orchestras which can become a bit jarring (especially when you’re soaking in a poignant moment), Shaolin is an impressive amalgamation of intelligent story-telling and exhilarating combat.
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