“It’s never wrong to strike first,” says Mr. Lau’s Hou, a warlord in early Republican China whose Machiavellian scheming leads him to disaster. Hou finds refuge at the Shaolin temple, whose sanctity he has earlier violated and mocked. Repentant, he becomes a monk, focusing his steely concentration (Mr. Lau gives good glare) on kung-fu discipline and Buddhist right action. And he’s needed to fight the good fight against his former protégé, the sneeringly cruel Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), who is wreaking havoc on the land and people.
With its oppressed masses; its muted palette of browns, grays and greens — all the better to set off a golden statue of the Buddha — and its elegant if bloody fights (so many knives through chests), “Shaolin” fits in the more somber kung-fu tradition. But it also finds room for the genre’s comic strain. Jackie Chan plays an older monk, a cook who never excelled at the martial arts (!) but knows his way around a wok. “Stir-fry them like vegetables!” one of his young disciples screams when bad guys attack him. And so he does, before kneading them like dumpling dough. A different kind of redemption, though, features in the climactic battle as Hou, the former sinner, falls — quite literally — into Buddha’s embrace.
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Benny Chan; action director, Cory Yuen; director of photography, Anthony Pun; production design by Yee Chung-man; released by Well Go USA and Variance Films. In Manhattan at the Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. In Cantonese and Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 11 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Andy Lau (Hou Jie), Nicholas Tse (Cao Man), Jackie Chan (Wu Dao), Wu Jing (Jing Neng), Fan Bingbing (Yan Xi) and Yu Hai (the Abbot).