Story: During the 20th century warlords in China are leading a war against each other over the rule in the country.
General Hou (Andy Lau) is one of them. His hunger for power even makes him betray his good friend. But he is deceived as well. His right hand
Tsao (Nicholas Tse) ambushes him and so he has to flee badly injured. His family falls apart and he seeks shelter at the local Shaolin temple.
Even though he mocked the temple only days before he is taken in by the monks. Hou realizes that he made mistakes and becomes a Shaolin monk
himself. However, his search for inner peace and forgiveness for his actions is made difficult by Tsao, who eventually finds out about his old boss'
whereabouts and wants to see him dead. A confrontation seems to be unavoidable but Hou also would like to convince Tsao that he is taking the same
unlucky path he once wandered. Tsao's craving for power and his fear of Hou make him wage war against the Shaolin temple leading to a lot
of innocent blood being spilled...
Review: If you make a movie with the title "Shaolin" then you are confronted with high expectations as a filmmaker. Director
Benny Chan is known for delivering blockbuster Hong Kong cinema that comes along with lots and lots of action. Therefore, his historical drama
provides exactly that, but in return has its weaknesses on the story and character level. And this even though more than anything else the movie should
have been more profound in this respect - after all it also deals with buddhism - and could have become a good mix for every kind of viewer to enjoy.
Sadly, the tone of Chan's movie is incoherent and so the dramatic moments can't always be as convincing as expected. Nonetheless,
this doesn't make "Shaolin" less entertaining.
Benny Chan's ("New Police Story", "Connected") action film is in fact a remake of a well-known story, namely that of a Shaolin temple burnt down to the ground, which was already dealt with in Jet Li's movie debut of 1982 titled "Shaolin Temple". Thus, you shouldn't expect anything out of the ordinary storywise. A ruthless warlord hungry for power loses everything because of his greed and eventually ends up in a temple at which he reflects about himself and his life. He realizes the mistakes he made in life and wants to repent. What's important to note is that Tsao is exactly like Huo in his early years and so Huo wants to help him not to do the same mistakes he did. Without spoiling too much, here the buddhist motive of the eternal circle also comes to bear.
With this main plot you can't do anything wrong if the characters weren't drawn that sketchy. Huo is a ruler who can be incredibly coldhearted and his transformation into a monk, who has given up on all worldly craving, is shown rather heavy-handedly. It is almost as if we would just get several excerpts of Huo's life, which in itself are all believable, but the transition that shows us how his character undergoes certain changes is missing. Andy Lau ("The Warlords", "Protégé") still manages to bestow a certain believabilty on his role, so that this problem only seldomly really sticks out. Nicholas Tse ("Dragon Tiger Gate") as the villain on the other hand depicts a very two-dimensional ruler who is supposed to attract our hatred with his mad eyes and a beard. He only somewhat succeeds in that because of the extremely gruesome crimes he commits on the country's residents. However, evil deeds for the sake of being evil just isn't enough for a truely good character portrayal.
In a supporting role Jackie Chan is to be seen as a cook who actually doesn't know any Kung Fu and he is taking a backseat in the movie which was a good decision. Fan Bingbing's role serves the drama in the movie but isn't worth talking about. Sadly Wu Jing ("SPL", "Legendary Assassin") also isn't appropriately made use of in the film. His martial arts expertise should have been put more into the focus. All in all "Shaolin" delivers less Kung Fu fights than what you would expect. Corey Yuen (director and action choreographer of such movies like "Fong Sai-Yuk" or "The Transporter") returns to the 90s and its Kung Fu flicks including all the wire-work, which is a bit sad, because without the countless wires the action would have been far more entertaining. But maybe a wide audience just demands this kind of action.
What's positive to note is that the actors - naturally also including Andy Lau - are doing many of their stunts themselves. The finale is also worthwhile thanks to its grandiose action and many spectacular explosions. This is without a doubt Benny Chan's handwriting and strength. Unfortunately, his strength doesn't lie in the drama or the more spiritual moments. There are a few nice dialogues and moments in which buddhism and the search for enlightenment is conveyed in a pleasent way, but they don't blend well into the overall work. It in fact would have been nice to see more of this spiritual side of the movie and it also would have made the characters more profound. Nevertheless, "Shaolin" still is a well produced action drama, that sometimes may feature too much pathos but can make up for that with its action and technical adaptation of the story.