Reviewed by: ewaffle
All fighting all the time; fights r us; you always fight the one you love. While Heroes of Shaolin casts quick glances at such weighty themes as filial loyalty, the role of an honorable man corrupt world, the duty of a citizen in the face of his countrys enemies, how a young man comes of age and even the redeeming power of conjugal love, it is really about very skilled and ruthless men attacking and beating each other up. As such it is very well done with Chan Sing taking on a real murderers row of Lo Lieh, Yuen Biao and Corey Yuen along with a bunch of lesser known but still deadly miscreants.
Reviewer Score: 6
"If you refuse a challenge then you have to die". This line from "Heroes of Shaolin" sums up the problems faced by a retired kung fu master--something much more serious than making the right decision on where to invest your 401K. If you beat an opponent he can work on this technique and demand a rematch. In this case the opponent has had the last five years to become more deadly while the master has been trying to enjoy his retirement. This challenge occurs on the beach where the master has been spending time with his son. Tu Tashan, the opponent, defeats the master and almost disdainfully throws a couple of knives on the ground next to him. The master picks one of them up and stabs himself in the stomach--while his son watches. While expiring in his son's arms the master manages to recruit his killer to help stop a group of traitors who are in league with the evil forces from the north. As he must the son attacks his father's killer. Tu Tashan, in the interests of martial arts chivalry and to set up the conflict for later on, tells the son he will teach him kung fu but to always remember that "I am your enemy" and the son can try to kill him at any time. So before the opening credits the two major plot threads are in motion: the traitors who have to be rooted out and the son who has to avenge his father by killing the man who is going to show him how to do it.
Lo Lieh as Lui Chan Yuan is a true villain. In an exact parallel to the fight during the opening scene he collapses on the ground and tells Tu Tashan that he is beaten and asks him for a favor. But instead of asking that Tu Tashan find the traitors to the motherland, he asks Tu Tashan to finish him off. When Tu attempts to do so Lui, who hasn't been badly hurt, leaps behind him and lands a blow, laughing at him and telling Tu that while he is a good fighter he is naive.
In another set of parallel scenes is so heavy handed and obvious that they almost seem like a parody, Hsiao Hu is hurt. Tu is very concerned and tenderly cares for him after challenging him to quit faking. When Tu is beaten by Lui Chan, Hsiao takes care of him in exactly the same way as Tu did with him, right down to placing a blanket at a certain angle.
There are a few more detours along the way although we are never more than a few minutes away from the next punch or kick. One of them is when Tu Tashan keeps a young woman from being forcibly sold to a brothelshe is being escorted there by two armed men and a disgusting harridan. Tu dispatches the thugs without breaking a sweat, pays off the female whoremonger and then looks into the eyes of Hsiao Hung, the young woman he has saved, and immediately is weak kneed with love, a startling transformation from cold eyed killer to a guy completely under the spell of love. He turns out to be a true gentlemanwhen he later discovers Hsiao Hung in a brothel he slaps around the owner, pays her debts and settles for a chaste kiss on the forehead from her.
The other distraction is the identity of the Manchu controlled traitor, a villain Tu has pledged to find and kill. Things look up for a bit when, while dining in a restaurant he notices that the only other guest has placed his chopsticks in a cross on his table. This is a signal that the other diner wants to hire a mercenary to kill someonequite a system. Tu meets him only to find he is cloaked and masked but willing to pay the going rate in gold for an assassination. Since the target turns out to be the pro-Manchu informer, Tu realized he can get paid for doing what he had already pledge to do. All is not what it seems, of course, with one exceptionevents seem confusing at this point and confusing they are.
The fights, whether with weapons or bare fists, are fast, believably brutal and very well choreographed. Most of the battles take place at very short range and in medium close-up shots, occasionally pulling back to more general views. They are the main reason to watch this movie and the A-list action directors, stunt players and martial artists cover themselves in glory.
There are a few bits of intentional humorfor example Tu is not particularly good at meditating. He looks around, rolls his shoulders, scratches his face and kills a bug that lands on him. Hsiao Hu, trying to learn from the master, follows his every move, even slapping himself in the cheek to kill the (for him) nonexistent bug. One outrageous mistake occurred when Tu Tashan and one of his opponents jumped out of the window of a brotheland landed on the steps of an imperial palace.
All quibbles aside, Heroes of Shaolin is worth seeing for its very well developed and executed martial artistry.