The Shaolin movie I know, was one in the 80s that launched the film career of Li Lianjie, who somewhat faded away until his portrayal of Wong Fei Hong in Once Upon a Time in China that launched him to superstardom. Superstars aren't lacking in this update of Shaolin Temple which promises spectacular action sequences, but what's surprisingly excellent here isn't the action, but the spirit of Buddhism and themes that come along with it.
It isn't a remake per se of the old Shaolin Temple movie given a fresh set of characters and a premise that's remotely similar, set after the fall of the Qing dynasty with warlords battling it out for supremacy and territory in China. In what I thought was quite a stark message in warning of any future infighting amongst the Chinese if they do not stand united, that foreign powers are more than willing to wait for an opportunity to exploit. Economic advantages offered should also be scrutinized beyond immediate gains, where corruption of the few in power would mean severe losses on a national scale.
That aside, this film centers itself squarely on the central character of the ruthless and cunning warlord Hao Jie (Andy Lau), who has no qualms in constantly gaining upper hands amongst enemies and allies even. In a wrongly calculated move to take on his sworn brother in an ambush, his protege Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) probably had understood his mentor's philosophy that no man is indispensable to quash his insatiable appetite for power and glory, and through the countless of indoctrination in the Hao-Jie-School-of-Thought, it is no wonder that Cao Man ultimately decides to betray his master. Think of it as striking when the iron is hot to become top dog and making decisions, rather than taking them.
In a tale about retribution and karma, Shaolin doesn't deviate very far from those themes, of how evil intentions can lead one astray and suffer inconsolable consequences, only for religion to point one back to the path of righteousness and all things good. In some ways this resembled the story of Huo Yuanjia in Fearless, where pride comes before the fall of man, stripping him of everything and down to his core, then comes the rebuild of character, and ultimately walking the talk and redemption. Hao Jie's story follows this trajectory and there's no qualms about Andy Lau being cast in this dramatic role despite his lack of real martial arts skills as compared to his other counterparts in the film, opposite the likes of co-stars Nicholas Tse, Wu Jing, Xing Yu, Xiong Xin Xin and Jackie Chan who serves as comic relief as a Shaolin monk-cook.
But most of the co-stars were severely under-utilized, as the story, with responsibility coming from no less than five writers, didn't pay the others too much attention. Nicholas Tse probably had the meatier role as the chief villain who schemes and sneers, while the rest are in to showcase more of Shaolin martial arts in one film, except for Xiong Xin Xin being the villainous sidekick to Cao Man, with no dialogue. Wu Jing, Xing Yu and Ye Shaoqun all starred as the requisite monks caught up in the firefight as the latter two become part of a group who steals from the army to feed the villagers. Fan Bing Bing was a complete waste as the token female amongst the cast, and although she had a scene or two in a big action sequence in an ambush, little can be said once she appears on and off as the damsel always in distress.
Action direction came from Cory Yuen, with choreography courtesy of Yuen Tak (responsible for Gallants) and Li Chung Chi, all veterans in their field, so quality is almost assured when the combatants take on each other, although I must say that most fights ended as soon as they began, which is a pity. Quality also goes toward the art direction, with production values culminating in the recreation of the Shaolin Temple, made to resemble a bastion of compassion open to all and sundry displaced by warring factions seeking refuge at its doorsteps in tumultuous times.
Benny Chan's filmography may have blown hot and cold in recent years, but Shaolin establishes him back at the top of the game able to handle a big budgeted spectacle that doesn't necessarily rely on star power and action to deliver the goods, but actually is a thinking man's film on the philosophical aspects of Buddhism, and the balance of Martial Zen. Recommended!