What is it about kick-ass monks that makes them such compelling action heroes? With a mixture of quiet honor, dignity, internal peace, and a potentially deadly skill set, they simply possess a dynamic combination of traits that is both valiant and intimidating. As often reluctant warriors, their eventual call to action is frequently fueled by only the most noble of intentions which only adds to their heroic and mythic quality. Such is the case in 'Shaolin,' a sweeping, action packed historical epic from director Benny Chan.
Set against the backdrop of war and conflict surrounding a peaceful Shaolin Temple, the film attempts to blend Wushu action, light comedy, and deeper themes of guilt, sin, and redemption into an entertaining and insightful package. Through some well staged fight scenes, big budget production value, and charismatic, thoughtful performances, the movie ends up doing an admirable but not quite successful job. The filmmakers present an epic and ambitious scope, but never find the same balance and rhythm as their Zen practicing protagonists, leaving some aspects of the narrative underdeveloped and thin. Still, the monks do effectively glide about while pulling off some nifty martial arts moves, and that alone is worth something.
Set in the early days of the Republic of China, the plot focuses on a ruthless warlord named Hou Jie (Andy Lau). After an attempted coup against a former ally goes horribly wrong, Jie's protégé, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), betrays his master, forcing Jie into hiding in a nearby Shaolin temple. Filled with guilt over the tragic, personal consequences of his violent actions, Jie attempts to find peace by training with the monks. Conflicts eventually reach a boiling point, and Hou Jie and his new companions must ultimately defend the temple and nearby refugees from Cao Man's heartless cruelty.
The script is full of some strong thematic content and Hou Jie's gradual transformation from selfish warlord into selfless monk is handled well. Andy Lau creates a complicated character full of nuance and depth. His great loss and shame fuels the story and creates a compelling personal arc. The movie is also full of interesting production design work with intricate sets and elaborate battle sequences. Action is well choreographed with some creative but not particularly memorable martial arts fight scenes and there's even a thrilling chase sequence. Wire work is present but is comparatively subdued, favoring a slightly more realistic take on the kung fu antics (though as stated above, the monks definitely do glide about). Humor is also effectively woven into the drama and action, especially through Jackie Chan's character, Wudao, a Shaolin monk chef. Unfortunately, despite these positives, the movie does take a few stumbles, leaving some threads undeveloped.
While Hou Jie's overall arc is insightful and engaging, a major subplot involving the Shaolin monks themselves is disappointingly marginalized. The monks are setup as a kind of Robin Hood-esque heroic force, stealing rice for poor refugees and committing other good deeds, but this aspect isn't given enough screen time to evolve. Several supporting characters are given welcomed, distinct personalities, but get few moments to really shine. Historic details about foreign politics and tension are also glossed over a bit, and the actual details of the plot are thin and basic, leading to a main narrative thread that feels very familiar and uninspired. Though Nicholas Tse does a fine job as the villain, his character's betrayal of Jie is rather abrupt and his turn toward the dark side makes him very one-dimensional. In the end, emotional beats and resolutions don't quite connect as strongly as intended due to a lack of investment and originality in the story.
'Shaolin' benefits from some decent character work, good performances, and exciting action, but can't quite overcome some undeveloped subplots and slightly unoriginal scripting. While Jie's personal story is strong, and the director does effectively create an epic, big budget atmosphere while still maintaining a focus on character, the film could have benefited from a more fleshed out and expanded running time (and indeed many of the included deleted scenes could have helped in this regard). Big fans of similar Chinese martial arts epics should find a lot to enjoy here, but the film can't quite reach the same heights of creativity as other more successful efforts in the genre.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Well Go USA Entertainment presents 'Shaolin: Collector's Edition' in a two disc set. The film and some of the supplements are included on a BD-50 disc and all of the additional special features are included on a DVD, which both come packaged together in a standard case with a cardboard slipcover. After some fast-forwardable, but not skippable trailers, the disc transitions to a standard navigation menu.
The movie is presented in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. With some intricate costumes, set design, and high production value, the film looks pretty good on Blu-ray.
The print is in pristine shape with a very light layer of grain visible at times. Detail is good and there is a solid sense of dimension present in the image, adding some pleasing pop to the numerous action and fight scenes. All of the carefully constructed sets and authentic wardrobe choices come through nicely, evoking early 20th century China in a convincing and impressive manner. Colors are intentionally muted furthering a stylistic but slightly drab palette that works well with the tone but does hinder vibrancy. Contrast is good with nice intensity but there are some minor fluctuations with black levels. I also did detect some faint but mostly negligible posterization.
'Shaolin' looks strong on Blu-ray with a technically proficient transfer that's free of any major anomalies or artifacts. The film's stylistic visuals and thrilling action scenes provide a solid viewing experience.
The movie is provided with a Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, a Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 track, an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 dub, and an English Dolby Digital 2.0 dub with optional English subtitles. Though not quite as immersive as one might expect, thanks to some lively and enveloping set pieces, the audio mix packs some welcome punch.
Dialogue is crisp and clean, with no major signs of crackles or pops. Separation across the entire soundscape is good with various directional effects flowing through the surround channels. Clashing blades, galloping horses, smacking fists, and popping bullets all come through with good fidelity and fill the rears when appropriate. Bass activity isn't exactly booming but is still effective, especially with the low thud of gunshots and booming kick of cannon fire and explosions. Dynamic range is wide and distortion free, and balance between all of the auditory elements is handled well.
While not quite exceptional, the movie definitely sounds good and features some exciting sound design and nice clarity. It isn't exactly demo material, but the mix serves the film's action well.
Well Go USA Entertainment has provided a strong assortment of special features for this collector's edition release, including deleted material and lots of behind-the-scenes footage. All of the special features are presented in Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 sound with English subtitles unless noted otherwise. The features on the Blu-ray disc are presented in 1080p and the extras on the DVD are of course presented in standard definition.
Disc One (Blu-ray)
Disc Two (DVD)
'Shaolin' is a solid but not particularly memorable entry into the Wushu genre of Chinese historical epics. The fight scenes and action set pieces are entertaining, and the film's personal story of redemption is effective, but some undeveloped threads and basic plotting lead to an average but still worthwhile experience. Video and audio qualities are both good, and supplements in this collector's edition release are downright exhaustive but a little repetitive. While not exactly the epic masterpiece it sets out to be, this is a strong disc for a solid film. Worth a look.