Judge Josh Rode once meditated for an entire hour. At least, that's what he told his history teacher he was doing.
Protect the temple.
The legendary Shaolin Temple is a pervasive part of Chinese film lore. It is a place of peace and tranquility, where monks devote themselves to the building of their spirits, minds, and bodies in an unending quest for enlightenment. Part of that training includes mastering Shaolin's version of kung-fu, known far and wide as some of the best the world has to offer. In theory, this training is meant for disciplining oneself, not kicking other peoples' butts, but watching people meditating and learning harmony makes for a boring spectacle, so most films find reasons for the monks to show off their skills.
Facts of the Case
Hou Jie (Andy Lau, House of Flying Daggers) is a warlord in post-dynasty China who solidified his holdings by killing the leader of his enemies in cold blood in a Shaolin temple. But when second-in-command Cao Man (Nicholas Tse, Bodyguards and Assassins) betrays him, Hou Jie is forced to seek refuge in the very same temple. Can he give up his hatred and need for revenge in order to become a monk? Since this is the movies, the question is moot: his enemies will conveniently come for him.
Shaolin is a film with an identity problem. It wants to be a serious kung-fu epic (as its 131 minute running time will attest), but it also wants to be light-hearted and fun. Hou Jie is a man with no apparent sense of humor; even after his battles seem to be over, he can barely manage a smile for his daughter or his wife. His grim mien is even worse when he gets to the Shaolin temple, where he takes everything he does, including handing bread to refugees, as seriously as he once took planning a battle. In contrast, all the other monks are easygoing, especially cook Wu Dao (Jackie Chan, 1911), He is Hou Jie's first Buddhist mentor, claims to know nothing of martial arts, and entertains the kids with his unique cooking style. The other monks spend their time falling off of balancing poles and planning "legendary" heists of rice for the starving refugees.
Perhaps the film's identity wouldn't be such as issue if there was a better balance between the two dichotomies, but most of the film is centered around Hou Jie, which makes the other parts feel like comedy relief instead of integrated pieces of the story. Most of the deleted scenes involve storylines for two of the monks that would have relieved the issue…but they would also have extended the running time to nearly three hours.
There were a couple of directions director Benny Chan (Robin-B-Hood) could have gone in order to resolve this issue. He might have cut the unnecessary introductory plotline involving Hou Jie's suspicions about his boyhood friend in favor of the other monks' stories, making for a light drama/comedy with an ensemble cast about a warlord dropped into the midst of a Shaolin temple. Or he might have cut all of the other monks' storylines completely out, turning the film into a grim and violent action piece focused purely on Hou Jie. Either one of these would have made for a more satisfying film.
The film would also have benefited if it hadn't felt the need to accommodate Jackie Chan. He has evolved into a decent actor, but his character is superfluous at best, with an unconvincing storyline about his fear of leaving the temple to travel the world, and an even less believable finale, as he is chosen to lead the refugees to safety. The climactic battle scene features guns and swords and staffs and dead-serious fighting…until Wu Dao gets attacked and for a full five minutes the film turns into a Jackie Chan flick.
The other main issue with the film is the apparent ease with which Hou Jie is able to become a placid monk. It takes only a few days huddled in the bottom of a boar trap for him to reverse a lifetime of anger, hatred, and dominance. After the initial outcries against him, the other monks accept him with no qualms. Again, the deleted scenes show that there was originally a lot more to the story, as Hou Jie went through trials that taught him the humility that the final cut freely gives him, while the monks got over their initial mistrust and fear.
With the exception of the foreigners, who look and act as if they're wearing rubber masks, the acting is pretty good across the board. Lau's intense performance is fitting for his role, and Tse is convincingly cold and ruthless. The monks, although ironically relegated to secondary roles, give the most rounded performances. Wu Jing (City Under Siege), especially, stands out as senior student Jing Neng. He exudes a quiet confidence that none of the more well-known actors can match; watch for him to make an impact in Hollywood, assuming he chooses that route.
The fight scenes are where Shaolin really shines. They have good spacing and perfect camera work. There are no close-ups to hamper the action, no slow-motion to make false drama, no high-flying wirework (although there are wires to depict people flying backwards after getting punched). Every fight feels real, and no one is so far superior to everyone else that he can't get hurt or killed.
Shaolin (Blu-ray) Collector's Edition 2.35:1/1080p picture is sharp and clean, with well-balanced colors and passable black levels. That being said, the dull outfits and mountainous landscapes seep away the color, so the palette is less than vibrant. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio has very nice balance both left-to-right and front-to-back, but the subwoofer is barely used. The English dubbing matches up adequately and does not vary significantly from the subtitles, which are unobtrusive yet easy to read. Extras include the aforementioned deleted scenes, an excruciatingly long series of choppy interviews with Benny Chan and some of the actors, behind-the-scenes footage, a making of featurette, trailers, and a DVD Copy.
As a kung-fu action flick, Shaolin does its historically significant title proud. As a dramatic film, it stumbles upon its inability to get out of its own way. Either of the two movies it wants to be had the potential to be really good, but since it can't reconcile the two in its alloted timeframe, it doesn't get either quite right. Close to being a classic of its genre, Shaolin instead becomes a "watch once and then move on."
Guilty of indecisiveness, released on parole.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go USA
• Deleted Scenes
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