Head of Monastery: "Which is more valuable? A piece of gold, or a lump of mud?"
Jackie Chan as The Cook: "The gold, I guess."
Head of Monastery: "But to a seed?"
That's probably one of the most profound exchanges that we get in "Shaolin," the 2011 remake of "Shaolin Temple," and it seems especially precious compared to the worst line, spoken like smack-talk and in all seriousness: "Stir-fry them like vegetables!" So of course we look to the more profound line as a key to understanding a plot that seems like your standard warlords-can't-be-trusted formula.
If anything, it turns out that those lines have more to do with Jackie Chan as an actor. No longer the action star, he plays a supporting role as a comic character, like Gabby Hayes did in the old Westerns. It's sad to see him relegated to such a role, but I suspect this is the first of many films to include him in some marginal way because he was such a great action star for so many years.
This picture belongs to Andy Lau and Nicholas Tse, and to the collective monks of Shaolin Temple who practice balancing on poles, en masse, then go up against invaders with guns using only staffs and Zen-inspired martial arts. The plot is simple twist, with a couple of side twists knotted up for good measure: Warlord Hou Jie (Lau) kills a rival on the grounds of the Shaolin Temple, where he had sought refuge. Later, the tables are turned and, humbled, he seeks to reinvent himself at that same monastery and ends up fighting with the monks and fight with them against insurmountable forces. In between, we get two treacherous betrayals: Hou Jie turning against a warlord ally who's also an in-law to be, and his own lieutenant (Tse) turning against him.
That's it, really, but it's the production values and cinematography that contribute to an impressive screen experience, with the costuming and sets evoking China on the threshold of industrialization, a time when warlords and Shaolin monks were clearly traditions that were challenged by new orders, and swords and hand-to-hand combat were suddenly threatened with extinction because of automatic rifles and Gatling guns.
The acting is decent throughout, and thankfully there aren't many "stir fry" lines to ruin the adventure. Chan does seem a little lost at times, not knowing how to play this meek little cook whose minor role seems expanded uncomfortably to accommodate the martial arts legend. It's hard to tell if the fault lies with the writing, the performance, or the direction of Benny Chan, who directed Chang in numerous films before.
As for the action, apart from the monks atop those poles there's nothing that really stands out. The stunts and fight choreography are competent, certainly, but nothing we haven't seen before. Better, frankly, are those quieter scenes that show Hou Jie's and Cao Man's ruthlessness of character--moments that say just as much as the louder, more furious sequences. Shots of refugees also provide a nice contrast.
Visually, "Shaolin" really shines. The costume and set design is stunning, and the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer video sparkles with zero artifacts and a visual field that brings the lavish production to life. Colors really pop, gold and other metals gleam, and textures everywhere are so palpable that it gives a nice sense of 3-dimensionality to this standard 2D release. Even the dark scenes convey all of the detail they contain with no crush and no diminished black levels. Refugee scenes are deliberately subdued with dull greys and greens, but overall I don't know what more you could expect from a video presentation.
The audio is equally accomplished, with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 choice between the original Cantonese (with English Subtitles) and an English dubbed version. As always, I recommend the original language to capture both the period feel of the film and the original actors' voices. In this case, the Cantonese track also feels more pristine, though both versions wake the subwoofers during action scenes. For an action film, though, there's a lot of dialogue and quite a few quiet moments onscreen, and the sound is perhaps best appreciated during such moments. Additional audio options are English and Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0, with subtitles only in English.
For a "Collector's Edition," there's a paucity of bonus features, and the substantial ones are in standard definition. We get 40 minutes of individual on-camera interviews with the director and his stars: Lau, Tse, Chan, Fan Bingbing, and Wu Jing. If you ignore the jerky cuts from one question to the other there's some decent stuff here, especially with director Chan's insights into the historical basis for the film. Then there's almost two hours of behind-the-scenes footage--raw, unedited, and without voiceover. A shorter making-of collection of production shots clocks in at 40 minutes, this time intercut with cast and crew talking about various aspects of the film, but there's some overlapping with the longer feature. As for new HD material, all that's here are 44 minutes of deleted scenes--most of which are really extended scenes or re-shot scenes--and three trailers.
This is a two-disc set, with the SD features appearing on a separate DVD.
"Shaolin" is one of those films that impresses you, even though it fails to set itself apart from other films in the genre.