The 1982 gongfu classic "Shaolin" introduced Jet Li to the world, but there is no breakout star to be found here in Benny Chan's take on the famed birthplace of Shaolin martial arts. No matter really- though Heavenly King Andy Lau may not have the moves or the agility to match Jet Li, his leading man performance here is no less terrific. Indeed, what Andy lacks in the physical department, he more than amply makes up for with his dramatic chops, delivering a deeply moving performance as the arrogant and scheming warlord Hou Jie who undergoes a 180-degree transformation under the tutelage of the Shaolin monks.
This transformation is at the heart of Benny Chan's film, which differentiates itself splendidly from the recent crop of period epics with a generous infusion of Buddhist teachings. These nuggets of wisdom elevate "Shaolin" into a surprisingly thoughtful film, meditating on the fruitlessness of anger, violence and hatred, and preaching ever persuasiveness the merits of peace, compassion and love. Non-believers however need not fear- Benny's sure hand never lets the film become sanctimonious, instead emphasising the universal truths of these teachings and demonstrating their truism through a heartfelt yarn.
Written by no less than four writers, the story is a gripping one of repentance and renewal set amidst a time when China was torn apart by internal strife and threatened by foreign powers. General Hou Jie was one such local warlord, his hunger for power matched by that of his second-in-command, the equally scheming Cao Man (Nicholas Tse). A compelling opening sequence introduces Hou Jie and Cao Man as the despotic men they are (at least at the start), chasing an enemy right into the compounds of the Shaolin temple and paying no heed to the abbot's words to let him save the dying man.
Hou's victory though is short-lived, as an ambush on his sworn brother whom he suspects of ill intentions goes awry. The orchestrator is none other than Cao Man, whose own tyrannical ambitions Hou had fomented over the years. In a reversal of fate, the film plants Hou at the doorstep of the Shaolin temple, seeking the monks' help to rescue his badly wounded young daughter. There is an obvious play on the Buddhist concept of karma here- but rather than dwell too much on these implications, Benny shrewdly grounds this turn of events in keenly-felt poignancy, underscoring their importance as a defining moment in Hou Jie's subsequent metamorphosis.
Whereas lesser directors may have been tempted to skim through Hou Jie's redemptive journey, Benny exhibits an assuredness in allowing the movie to settle down to a more measured pace before its action-packed, explosive (literally) finale. He also brings on Jackie Chan in an amusing role as the resident Shaolin cook Wu Dao, a laid-back fellow perfectly content with his circumstance. It is not unlike the one Jackie played in "Little Big Soldier" two years ago, but it's always enjoyable to see the veteran gongfu actor back on screen, especially in a particularly entertaining sequence where he uses his cooking skills to good measure against Cao Man's soldiers.
Other notable supporting roles include Wu Jing as the senior Shaolin monk Qing Neng and Hou's mentor, as well as Xiong Xin Xin (best known as Ghost Feet Seven in the Wong Fei Hung series) as Cao Man's evil henchman Jiang Yuan. Unfortunately, the script doesn't quite do justice to the actors playing these supporting roles- Xiong's character and Fan Bingbing's one as Hou Jie's wife Yan Xi are sorely underwritten and a waste of their considerable talent. If there is one consolation, it must be that Benny has given Andy ample screen time to flesh out the complexities of his character.
And what a job Andy does, equally effective as the egotistical warlord on the pursuit of riches and power and as the reformed monk who realises the folly of his past ways. There's never been a doubt that Andy possessed screen charisma, but here he rewards Benny's attention to his character with a richly nuanced and textured portrayal of a man struggling to overcome his angry and violent tendencies to become a better person. Just as impressive is his gongfu, though no match for Jet Li's naturally but still admirable nonetheless- especially when he duels with Nicholas with a long wooden pole.
Thanks to some nifty action direction by Corey Yuen and choreography by veteran stunt people Yuen Tak and Lee Chung Chi, the action sequences do not disappoint. But ultimately, the strength of Benny Chan's "Shaolin" lies in how surprisingly intellectual and deeply moving it is- intellectual in its Buddhist leanings of the vicious cycle war, hatred and greed perpetrates; and moving in its portrayal of one man's redemptive journey to free himself from his sinful past. It is a blockbuster in every sense, from spectacle, to emotion, and most of all spirit.