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In “Shaolin”, Andy Lau plays a Chinese Warlord named General Hou Jie (though where he got that title, or all those medals he wears is a bit of a mystery) in turn of the century China, who is on a quest to grab as much power as he can. He is aided in this nefarious and totally selfish goal by his trusted Lieutenant Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), to whom he imparts various pearls of wisdom such as, “Shoot them if they stand in my way” and “Whoever strikes first, wins.” Unfortunately for our dastardly warlord and his China-conquering ways, Cao Man takes that last bit of advice to heart, and in no time at all has betrayed his mentor, forcing Hou to seek refuge in the same Shaolin temple on the outskirts of town where, earlier in the movie he had belittled and even shot the Abbot running the joint.
Karma, as they say, is a bitch. So is Hou Jie, to be perfectly honest with you, who is quite the despicable fellow when we first meet him. It seems the love of a good woman (Bingbing Fan) and one of those precocious movie daughters hasn’t done much to warm our hero’s heart. Oh no. It takes the complete annihilation of his empire, the death of his daughter, and the seething hate of his wife for his evil ways (the source of their current misery, she reasons, though that of course doesn’t excuse the fact that she, you know, went along with it, natch) to convince our man that it’s time to turn over a new leaf. Fortunately, the Shaolin temple is very welcoming place (not to mention forgiving), and Hou is welcomed into their ranks after proving to the doubtful monks that he is, scout’s honor, a changed man.
Momentarily safe from his enemies (they believe him dead, having dropped off a mountainside in the aftermath of a ridiculously convoluted and hair-brained horse-and-carriage chase, if you can believe it), our hero learns humility, the noble ways of the Shaolin temple, some quick kung fu (thanks, movie montage!), even gets a brand spanking new name, and befriends a good-natured cook played by producer Jackie Chan. Alas, Hou’s newfound peaceful existence is bound to clash with his past, as these things invariably do, but how will a new, peace-loving Hou Jie face the challenges that awaits him in the form of his former protege-turned-oh-so-eccentric villain? Oh who am I kidding. He and fellow badass Shaolin monks Jing Neng (Jacky Wu) and the lovable lug Jing Kong (Yu Xing) get their asskicking on. That’s how they do it at the Shaolin temple.
“Shaolin” is fronted by uber Hong Kong star Andy Lau, who has certainly committed to the role, if all the crying he does in the movie is any indication. Then again, I’m not sure if the filmmakers (or Lau) intended for Hou Jie’s seven stages of grief period to be as amusing as they were. I’m sorry, but watching a grown man crying while trying to wolf down a bowl of noodles is just too hilarious for words. I suppose Lau had to make sure he wasn’t out-cried by Bingbing Fan, who can really wail with the best of them. Co-star Nicholas Tse, the film’s villain, is beyond erratic. Cao Man’s transformation from loyal sidekick to evil mastermind is a stretch, but you gotta admire the guy’s ability to grow a full set of “evil” looking facial hair in just a few short days. After all, foreigners determined to rape China for profits need a partner just as evil looking as they are. Yes, “Shaolin” offers up one of those villains, too. Nothing gets the home crowd excited like EEEEEEEEEVIL nondescript foreigners looking to pillage the treasures of the noble Chinese people.
Action choreography for “Shaolin” is provided by Corey Yuen, the guy you get when Yuen Woo-ping is too busy directing his own martial arts movie. The lesser Yuen’s work is serviceable, though there’s nothing here that really sets “Shaolin” apart from recent martial arts films. There is probably too much obvious wire-fu in the stunts, with much of the fisticuffs supplied by the Shaolin monks, who generally beat the crap out of Cao Man’s poorly trained soldiers. Hell, even the Shaolin tykes whup on Cao Man’s hapless numbskulls, who rarely get off a shot against the pole-wielding monks. Jacky Wu, who probably has the film’s most mature performance, is relegated too much into the background, and the film’s Third Act, when Hou Jie must confront his past by way of Cao Man, is not nearly as spectacular as it had to be in order to make up for what has been a very underwhelming film for the past 90 minutes. But they certainly give it a shot, though, with a final 20 minutes that is almost entirely all fighting.
Speaking of director Benny Chan, he’s always been a bit of a hit and miss director for me. I enjoyed his 2005 crime thriller “Divergence”, but more often than not he’s one of those hired guns you bring onboard if you need something done fast and under budget. Obviously it’s not like Chan is working with fine cloth here. “Shaolin” is as predictable and as by-the-numbers as they come. The film’s only real “shocker” is just how easily Hou Jie’s budding empire comes unglued, and why is it that someone has told Nicholas Tse that the way to “play evil” is to act drunk, swagger, and cartoonlishly cackle his way through the rest of the movie. And I’m not even going to touch the boy band haircut Cao Man is suddenly sporting.
Benny Chan (director) / Chi Kwong Cheung, Cheung Tan, Alan Yuen (screenplay)
CAST: Andy Lau … General Hou Jie
Nicholas Tse … Cao Man
Bingbing Fan … Hou Jie’s wife
Jackie Chan … Cook
Jacky Wu … Jing Neng
Yu Xing … Jing Kong