Although they are quite different in a number of ways, I will compare Shaolin with Detective Dee. Both are spectacular, big budget fu-fighting extravaganzas starring Any Lau, and I hope very much that the box-office success heralds a string of movies in a similar vein. Both are great movies. Highly entertaining and the sort of movies you really should see in the cinema first. But while Detective Dee is undoubtably the better movie, this is in no way to dismiss Shaolin.
Reviewer Score: 8
High production values are evident for Shaolin. No less than five film companies contributing. Money well spent. Glorious locations, wonderful mountain scenery, damn good special effects. Terrific casting. Thrilling set-piece mass kung fu fighting scenes.
Though it would be unkind to describe the movie as an Andy Lau vehicle, he couldnt have done any better if it had been. We know just what to expect with Andy in the lead, and he delivers. Being surrounded by such stellar fu talent might have been a problem for Andy, but Corey Yuens action direction is skilfully designed in such a way that the great fighters are matched with each other, while the climactic battle between Andy and the main villain is a clever mixture of moderate fu, special effects and spectacular explosions.
Some of the movie ads Ive seen here imply that Jackie Chan is the star. Perhaps theyre doing this with a nudge and a wink. Jackies role is important, but he is a guest star. His character is the old and kindly cook who has spent his entire life in Shaolin, and had only done a couple of years of martial arts. In a priceless exchange, General Hou asks the cook if he was ever a monk. No, he replies, because my heart is impure, just like yours. So Jackie doesnt fight ? Oh My God ! I want my money back !
Fear not, Jackie does get to show off in a fight. This scene does not technically fit in with the story, and the difference in tone makes it blatantly obvious that it was inserted to satisfy Jackies billions of fans. That said, the scene is an absolute scream, is sheer pleasure to watch, and worth the price of admission alone.
There are some aspects of the movie that jar or dont make sense. For instance, a battle and chase scene early on features power lines. Yes, electrical power lines which spark as they are hit with crashing buildings. Now I understand that the precise time of Shaolin Temple is shrouded in legend, but did the Chinese hinterland really have electricity then ? And, for that matter, were railroads being built around that time ? And were evil foreigners involved at the time of the burning of the temple ? I can only conclude that historical accuracy would only have gotten in the way.
There are things to be annoyed at. It seems that Chinese cinema will never truly get over the stereotype of the insanely evil Chinese-loathing foreign devil. The explanation given for this is even more laughable than Sir Peters evil cackle. Still, it is perhaps difficult to allow subtlety into a spectacular, and everyone involved acts at the hysterical end, so perhaps it is carping to point to one characters extreme over-reaction.
Excellent casting notwithstanding, some actors are not put to their best use. Wu Ging is the clearest example. Perfectly cast as the senior martial arts trainer monk, one of Hong Kongs greatest film fu fighters is not given nearly enough opportunity to show off his jaw-dropping skill. This is particularly disappointing, given the presence of Xiong Yin Yin, one of the few who can genuinely match him. Instead, Xing Yu is given the tough assignment of matching Yin Yin, where again Corey Yuens action design produces thrilling matches.
Also, the luscious Fan Bingbing is little more than a guest star. Okay, I concede this is very much a blokes-fighting-blokes flick, but I really believe Bingbing could have stayed on screen longer.
There are a few quiet passages which could have been shortened. The lead up in the beginning could have been compressed. It seems the producers wanted to establish the grandeur and spectacle, but I believe this angle was drawn out too much and, anyway, was established far better alongside the development of the narrative when things finally hotted up. If I were the editor (hah ! Such conceit!), Id have found a way to compress the first half hour to about ten minutes.
Detective Dee suffers from none of these drawbacks, and being helmed by the hurricane genius Tsui Hark is an unbeatable advantage. But dont let these details put you off. Shaolin is a grand way to spend two hours. Bugger the Hollywood action blockbusters.