Shaolin has a historic biopic feel (seems to be the fashion in Kung Fu of late) though as far as I know, it's not based on any actual events or figures. It stars Andy Lau, a talented performer whom I knew best from The Warlords (2007), offering a solid screen presence if not a surfeit of charisma. Playing the baddie was Nicholas Tse, whom I mistook for Huang Xiaoming the entire movie. In my defense, both actors are also former pop stars. They must have twin-like pop-star facial features. Anyhow, Tse played a believable power-hungry, sadistic dictator figure, though like Lau was also just a little short on charisma…though for all I know, that could be the fault of subtitle translation.
I won't bore you by summarizing the plot, which was your classic, thoughtful war epic, as well as a culture clash between ambitious military generals and pacifist-but-still-bad-ass Shaolin monks whose temple is under siege and caught between the two warring factions. It also becomes adoptive home to the protagonist after he (of course) loses everything he loves as a result of his ambition and back-stabbing. Enlightenment and vengeance ensues.
The fight scenes were solid and innovative, with a just a taste of that over-the-top Kung Fu reliance on invisible wires for stylization, which personally I can really take or leave. They were well integrated, but I think what didn't work for me in the movie was the overall tone… It was, at times, heartbreaking and gritty and grief-stricken. Then at odd moments, bordering on slapstick (perhaps because of its guest star, though I don't blame Chan for the mad-cap components.) It was never wacky, but the wacky-ish moments didn't jibe with the heartrending scenes, which were many. The movie didn't suffer from a complete personality disorder, but a more consistent mood would've helped. And maybe I'm greedy, but I wanted more fight scenes. And more training montages. Always more montages!
I really enjoyed Yu Xing's supporting performance (according to IMDb trivia, he actually is a 32nd generation Shaolin monk!) I knew his face from the Ip Man films, and he and another actor did a great job in two minor-ish roles, soft comic relief in the form of charmingly wayward monks. They added a lighter element without it feeling too discordant, given all the wartime sturm und drang. Also deserving praise was the young performer (and actual Shaolin monk, I believe) who played the perhaps twelve-year-old monk fighter featured in the final quarter of the film. He was fabulous, though I wasn't able to track down his name to credit him.
So overall, a solid Kung Fu war epic, if not the most memorable one. But if you're intrigued, check the trailer: