Well-mounted Chinese-Hong Kong martial-arts co-production “Shaolin” elevates enlightenment above brute strength, but weak helming undercuts the pic’s punch. Yarn about the spiritual redemption of a warlord fails to capitalize on Andy Lau and Jackie Chan’s star power and the acrobatic support of real Shaolin monks. Domestically, Benny Chan’s pic took in a sturdy 100 million RMB ($15 million) in its opening weekend, but “Shaolin” lacks the sustained drawing power of recent Sino blockbusters. English-language end credits and a Western-aud-appeasing disclaimer about animal stunts reveal producers’ hope for crossover, but the pic’s international market will be confined mostly to expats.
Story begins in the chaotic early days after the fall of the Qing dynasty, post-1912. Ruthless General Hou Chieh (Lau) and his army have just finished pillaging the township of Tengfeng. Monks inhabiting a nearby Shaolin temple are shocked by the gun-toting Hou and his contempt for their spiritual sanctuary, but focus their attention on alleviating the hunger of Tengfeng’s refugees displaced by Hou’s rampage.
More impressed with Hou’s conquering ways is boastful ally Gen.Sung (Shi Xiaohong), who suggests a marriage between their infant children. Realizing that the betrothal of his daughter (Japanese tyke Runa Shimada) will mean Sung’s son will eventually inherit all their joint wealth, Hou sets up an ambush of his future in-law. The plan not only goes awry, but coincides with a raid by renegade monks on Sung’s illicit rice supply targeted at feeding Tengfeng’s homeless. One of the pic’s highlights is the kinetic action sequence that ensues as monks armed with staffs are caught up in battle, while Hou’s and Sung’s forces duke it out with bullets and battle axes.
Hou escapes, but with none of his treasures, and his humiliation is complete when he is accidentally trapped by the temple’s unworldly cook (Jackie Chan in an extended comic-relief cameo).
As a demoralized Hou joins the Shaolin monastery to seek inner peace and atonement, Hou’s former lieutenant Tsao (Nicholas Tse) has taken over, and a proposed deal with English generals to barter Chinese treasures dug up by Tengfeng refugees for guns and cannons threatens to further drain the region’s wealth and unsettle the territory.
Script’s multiple strands are well structured, and the Buddhist angle provides ample opportunity for (the Mandarin-dubbed) Lau to play a wide emotional range. Thesps hit their marks, and Stanley Cheung’s costumes are lavish, but despite producer-helmer Benny Chan having employed four writers to build on Albert Yeun’s original scenario, his direction fails to achieve any kind of narrative momentum.
Martial-arts displays by real Shaolin monks are nicely executed, but somehow the visuals lack urgency. Chopsocky master Jackie Chan entertains in a fight sequence in which he uses the tools of his character’s trade — a large spatula and a giant wok — but the pic never really figures out how to satisfyingly incorporate the skills of its backdrop Shaolin monks.
Muted lensing by Pun Yiu-ming is easy on the eyes but inhibits emotional attachment. All other tech credits are topnotch.