SHAOLIN (2011), directed by Benny Chan, is a big action blockbuster that deserves some props. When it comes to big booms, this film delivers. The problem is we don’t care, at least not as much as we should. This film is about General Hou Jie, played by Andy Lau (Iron Man 3 pending),transforming from bombastic warlord to humble monk. In the meantime, the monks of the temple play ‘Robin Hood’ stealing food from the wealthy to feed those in need. This is a way for you to get to know the personalities within the temple. I don’t have a problem with any of this per se. In fact, I think Lau’s arc is great and he mostly handles it well. The only problem with this setup is that one character gets completely overlooked: the Shaolin Temple itself. There’s irony for you. Almost no attention is paid to the temple, no big musical themes, hardly any memorable sets outside the main room with the giant Buddha, it’s like we’re hardly there. I really wanted to get to know the ins and the outs of this place, not just the training, but the studying and learning. Fortunately, Jackie Chan is here to give it some semblance of a living breathing place.
I guess in a way everything in the script connects, but this could have been a much simpler story. What you really care about is the conflict between Hou and the power-hungry Cao Man, played by Nicholas Tse. But the script also adds foreign invaders with a whole big evil plot and the Robin Hood arc which takes up time. Speaking of the foreign devils, another problem I had with the script was the destruction of the temple. The whole thing didn’t feel organic to the story. It was like they did it, but only because they felt obligated by history, not because it had to do with Hou’s or Cao Man’s journey. If they ended with just the final fight between these two in the temple, it would have been perfect. Just think, they could have saved millions of dollars with better storytelling! What we end up with instead is a pretty spectacular destruction scene which rivals any blockbuster out there right now, but since we didn’t get to know the temple, I didn’t feel a sense of loss when it all went up in flames. I also could have done without the groan-inducing 1980’s evil-villain laugh from the white general during the cannon fire. For modern audiences, this is unacceptable Benny Chan. You should know better.
There is plenty of action on display and most of it is good. You have occasional wire-work to enhance some leaps and throws, but there's also good grounded kung fu, though it is usually over too soon. To go along with all this, you have a good horse and chariot race (and crash) and also the big explosive finale. In all, this is worth checking out. You get a variety of action and a good story arc for both Hou Jie and Cao Man. The conclusion of their respective journeys is, I think, rather brilliant. But along the way you have to deal with some things you may not care as much for. This film delivers, but it could have been much better.
*** ½ out of *****
Note: Well Go USA released a Collector's edition, which is very worth it as you get 2 hours of behind the scenes footage! Also included is a 30 minute making-of feature and extended individual interviews. Naturally, there is some interview-overlap. On the first disc there is 44 minutes of deleted scenes!!! It's like a side film with the monks getting their own story.
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