Benny Chan’s Shaolin both benefits from and is ultimately defeated by its own epic ambitions. Benefits because it allows Chan to stage ambitious and enthralling set pieces beyond the purview of the lo-fi fists-of-fury template; defeated because it endows every battle with endlessly elongated slow-mo significance, opting shamelessly for tiresome symbolism and indulging a saggy middle section that feels like so much time-marking.
Actually, it’s the enthralling aspects of Chan’s epic orientation that dominate early on, whether it’s the somewhat strained, but undeniably eye-catching use of bold splotches of color to dot the monochrome canvas, the overhead tracking shots of decimated battlefields, or the vivid scenes of warring. The combat in question comes courtesy of a power struggle by Chinese warlords who attempt to divide up the country at the expense of the people. Set in unspecified pre-modern times, these warmongers and their generals brutally slaughter the people with guns largely provided by foreign investors who hope to build a railroad through the country. (The one principal “foreigner” we see registers as vaguely American and is treated as a cartoon villain throughout.)
The film sets up a clear guns/kung-fu dichotomy, with the latter, embodied by the “Martial Zen” philosophy of the local Shaolin monks, everywhere privileged. It’s the switch from rifles to fists that marks the transition of the film’s lead character, General Hou (Andy Lau). Initially a top general who plans to double-cross his chief rival, Hou is himself double-crossed by his wicked underling Cao (Nicholas Tse), a series of events that leads to the death of the general’s daughter and his decision to enlist for training in kung fu and Zen at the Shaolin monastery.
It’s here that the film begins to lose focus, as watching Andy Lau pantomime martial-arts gestures and start down the supposed path to enlightenment can’t compare to the thrills of the film’s first act. These earlier pleasures include fight scenes on both the large and small scale, filmed in a largely compelling strategy of semi-lucidity (that is, the actions are mostly coherent within a shot, but the quick cutting tends to blur the overall plan on the battle), and at least one spectacular set piece. In this sequence, a caravan chase around a treacherous mountainside road achieves spectacular visual grace from the use of lantern flames to light the relentless grey of the background and elicits heart-stopping gasps from Hou’s desperate leap onto his baby daughter’s errant carriage in an attempt to rescue her before she falls of the cliff.
But by the time the film returns to action for its third act, Chan is able to offer up none of these earlier pleasures. Emerging from his monkish seclusion, Hou and his Shaolin brethren are ready to take on Cao and his soldiers, but the endless final sequence is far more exhausting than enthralling. With merciless use of crosscutting and slow motion, a countless number of good guys sacrificing themselves in battle to save their fellow good guys so that the gesture begins to lose all meaning, and a ridiculous final symbolic moment involving the compassionate hands of a giant Buddha statue, Chan’s striving for significance soon becomes intolerably strained. Only Jackie Chan, in a comedic supporting role as a Zen-trained cook who applies his culinary techniques on the battlefield (he “stir-fries” one enemy in a giant pot and “kneads” another like dough), provides any measure of relief.