"Shaolin" is not an original film by any stretch of the imagination. For any martial arts aficionado worth his or her salt, it follows a very familiar, melodramatic storyline that served in one form or the other as the backbone for Shaw Brothers classics like "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin," "The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter," or aptly, "The Shaolin Temple." However, proving that formula and prior success isn't a bad thing, director Benny Chan directs a fine cast, led by Andy Lau, in a new stab at the classic tale (it's worth noting that in some markets "Shaolin" was billed as "The New Shaolin Temple") that while not the definitive take on the premise, emerges as one of 2011's quiet surprises.
The basic premise on paper seems simple, Hou Jie (Lau), a loving father and husband, but cold war master crosses paths with the peaceful Shaolin temple in pursuit of a Chinese Army traitor in possession of a "treasure map." At the same time, Jie is at private odds with Song Hu, a fellow military leader who desires the map but won't admit so. "Shaolin" takes a surprisingly long time to get to the core of all good Shaolin films, our hero embracing the ways of the monks, but director Chan never lets the film flounder offering an epic set piece that forever changes Jie's life and sends him on the run from Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), his once trusted second-in-command.
"Shaolin" is not a consistent film, running a slightly bloated 131-minutes, there are a few subplots and MacGuffins that detract in the film's first half from Jie's character arc. Notably a group of younger monks acting as Robin Hood-like figures feels especially superfluous, as the driving reason behind the diversion, showcasing their martial artistry is later established in the genre staple training sequences. However, for little stumbles along the way like this, "Shaolin" provides it's own imprint on the story. Jie is not quick to embrace the Shaolin way of life, unlike say characters played by Gordon Liu in the 1980s. To contrast his cold, often-antagonistic entry to the temple, he's paired off with the temple's cook, Wudao, played by Jackie Chan in a phenomenal supporting performance. The casting of Chan is a dangerous move as the veteran actor takes a real backseat, actually acting and only at the end giving viewers a brief, memorable fight sequence of his own.
Andy Lau, however, is more than able to carry the emotional and physical weight of the story on his shoulders and his work is top notch all the way, giving viewers a hero to root for who undergoes a believable spiritual transformation. Lau also ably holds his own when it comes to "Shaolin's" non-stop action focused finale. It's through the sheer talents of Lau and later on Tse as actors as well as director Chan, that "Shaolin" doesn't crumble under the weight of cliché and melodrama which is painted all over the final act. The film plays it straight without any hint of irony, outwardly wearing it's heart and soul on the sleeve in a film that finely balances character drama with martial arts action. "Shaolin" doesn't reinvent the genre, nor spin the definitive take on the premise, but what it does expertly makes it a mandatory viewing.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a striking looking film. The film's melancholy color palette is rendered consistently from start to finish, setting up the feel of the movie before any exposition is delivered. Detail however, while strong doesn't come off as fine and powerful as it could, however, there are no signs of DNR accounting for this fact. Contrast levels are equally impressive, with two of the film's nighttime action sequences never hampered by incoherency associated with dark cinematography and/or botched transfers.
The Dolby Digital Mandarin 5.1 audio track is a pleasing listen, with consistently crisp audio and immersive aggressive effects. Dialogue is a tad punched up, not quite existing outside the balance of the film itself, but far more prominent than expected. This is most noticeable when "Shaolin" exists as a dialogue driven, quiet film. When the action kicks in, these issues are pushed to the back burner by the sheer spectacle of the film. Mandarin 2.0 as well as English 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are included (a note to Chan fans, he doesn't dub himself). English and Spanish subtitles are included.
"Shaolin" exists in two separate DVD releases, this single-disc release and a more comprehensive two-disc release which features two separate making-of documentaries and a various cast and crew interviews. On this release, a staggering 45-minutes of deleted scenes are present, however the long runtime is largely due to the scenes being finished for the film and existing in the middle of existing footage for context. The film's trailer gallery rounds out the bonuses.
Despite "Shaolin's" epic runtime, the overall tale told is quite simple, elevated by wonderful direction from Benny Chan and great performances from all principal actors. "Shaolin" proves to be a crowd pleaser on both the visceral action level and the slightly sappy but effective emotional one. While devoted fans may want to check out the two-disc edition of the film for more supplemental features, this release captures the film perfectly for what it is: a good, dare I say old-fashioned martial arts tale. Highly Recommended.