"Shaolin," with its feuding warlords and fighting monks in '20s era China, is a sprawling popcorn blast of action kept spinning with crazy cool kung fu, tons of fake spurting blood (I think everyone had a packet clinched in their teeth) and slacker improvised, or inspired, U.S. subtitles.
How else to explain the warlord who growls at his No. 2, "You just don't get the drift…" while he's choking him. Maybe to death.
This is, however, exactly the drift you can expect when Hong Kong action impresario Benny Chan, with 20-plus very energetic fighting flicks under his black belt, is in charge. The director has never met a battle sequence he didn't want to extend — the better to slice and dice a few more bodies. Sharp-edged blades come in all shapes and sizes in "Shaolin," but machine guns, mortars and the rest are making their brutal, cultural debut.
There are bodies galore littering a battlefield to open the film, as the monks of Shaolin Temple pick through the carnage, sending the dead off to their next life and looking for the living. The devastation has been wrought by Gen. Hou Jie, with Andy Lau ("House of Flying Daggers," "Warlords") wonderful to watch per usual. Hou has more than a little help from his eager-to-please No. 2, Cao Man, a dark brooding grudge holder well played by Nicholas Tse ("The Promise").
To set up the conflict to come, Hou's rival has survived that first battle and is seeking shelter with the Buddhist monks of the legendary Shaolin temple, which gives the film its name and its inspiration. Chan chose a different page from history, setting his film more than 1,000 years after 1982's "The Shaolin Temple," which starred Jet Li and unfolded during the Tang Dynasty, and a few decades before Quentin Tarantino started visiting in "Kill Bill: Vol. 2."
The monks are an eclectic group that range from the ancient and wise to the young and reckless with martial arts movie master Jackie Chan as a very amusing baking buffoon in the middle. Theirs is a religion of peace but also preparedness — hours each day spent training in Shaolin Kung Fu, a super-fast brand that the monks teach at their World's School of Martial Arts.
The standoff between Hou and his rival on the temple grounds proves to be only the first of the film's fateful turning points. The general teaches his cruel acolyte Cao a lesson. But then the worm turns, and there are a series of betrayals and comeuppance that send Hou on a journey of enlightenment. Lau is responsible for most of the film's emotional depth, to which he brings a captivating introspective intensity. There's a secondary story line designed to lighten things up, when a few of the monks undertake a steal-from-the-rich plan to aide hungry peasants. But it doesn't really pay off, instead becoming a distraction from the main event.
Beyond the art of warfare, there is plenty of ancient wisdom dispensed by the monks. Chan is especially entertaining as the self-deprecating cook whose noodle kneading turns out to be as instructive as the hours the monks spend in martial arts training sessions. The kung fu itself is great fun to watch, from the discipline of balancing on one foot on a wooden pillar, the other in the air, for hours at a time to the confrontations that send fist and feet flying.
MPAA rating: R for violence
Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes, in Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles
Playing: Laemmle Sunset 5, West Hollywood