China is plunged into strife as feuding warlords try to expand their power by warring over neighbouring lands. Fuelled by his success on the battlefield, young and arrogant Hao Jie sneers at Shaolin’s masters when he beats one of them in a duel. When his family is wiped out by a rival warlord, Hao is forced to take refuge with the monks. As the civil unrest spreads and the people suffer, Hao and the Shaolin masters are forced to take a fiery stand against the evil warlords and they launch a daring plan of rescue and escape.
At the age of 56, Jackie Chan is smart enough to know he can't keep playing acrobatic action heroes so he’s content to take juicy supporting roles such as a comical, chirpy monk-cook in this violent, blood-soaked martial arts adventure injected with a heavy dose of Buddhism.
Chan brings a welcome light touch to the saga of revenge, repentance and redemption directed by Benny Chan and inspired by the 1982 classic The Shaolin Temple, which introduced the world to Jet Li. While Jackie gets to show he can still kick ass in one fight scene, he also utters one phrase I doubt he’d ever said before: 'I’m scared."
Shaolin features some dazzling set-pieces choreographed by action director Corey Yuen, although several prolonged sequences defy commonsense and the ability of any human anatomy to absorb, let alone survive, such brutal punishment.
The Shaolin Temple featured Li as the young son of a slave worker who’s adopted and trained by Shaolin monks and sets out to avenge his father’s death. There are echoes of that in Shaolin, which focuses on a man who hides in a Shaolin temple where he’s converted to Buddhism and becomes a hero.
As warlord-turned-monk Hou Jie, the top-billed Andy Lau undergoes an interesting metamorphosis but most other characters are stock villains or one-dimensional good guys, and Fan Bingbing is under-used as his wife Yan Xi.
The pace sometimes slackens to a crawl between the fight scenes and much of the dialogue is banal, typified by the elderly but amazingly athletic Abbot (Yu Hai), who trots out a string of homilies such as, 'Life is an accumulation of experiences," 'Evil deeds only bring a bad outcome" and 'Everyone has a purpose." Also, the screenplay only briefly touches on the poverty, starvation and vicious abuse suffered by the villagers of the era.
Set in the early 20th Century, the plot revolves around battles for land and riches between various warlords. Much of the conflict takes place at the 1,500-year-old Shaolin Temple in central China, regarded as the birthplace of Shaolin martial arts.
At the outset, General Hou is an arrogant, cruel, quick-tempered ruler who coldly shoots dead a rival and plans to kill another. After he’s betrayed by his 'sworn brother,’ ambitious second-in-command Cao Man (Nicolas Tse), Hou defeats a small army single-handedly but is then forced to flee with his young daughter Nan, an exciting chase in horse-drawn carriages. Nan dies, Yan Xi blames her husband for her death and abandons him. Lau shows his dramatic chops as he registers disbelief, grief and rage. Cao Man puts a $50,000 price on his head, Hou stumbles through a forest, falls into a hole and is rescued by Chan’s Wu Dao, who works in the temple’s kitchen.
Hou is given refuge by the Abbot and gradually begins to see the error of his ways and to atone. He also resolves his differences with fellow monks Jing Neng (Wu Jing), Jing Hai (Yu Shaoqun) and Jing Kong (Yanneng), who later return the favour. However it’s impossible to turn the other cheek as Cao Man mercilessly pursues him.
The violence in the last reel, culminating in an attack by the British artillery utilizing pyrotechnics devised by FX co-ordinator Li Chung Chi, is almost relentless and may be hard to watch for those of squeamish disposition. The Buddhist principles of benevolence and forgiveness are the film’s moral underpinning.
That, plus something common to many religions: Karma.