YOU KNOW THE DRILL: Good-hearted but naïve hero finds redemption in kung fu, and, as with just about every other crowd-pleasing movie that's come out of China in recent memory, there's some subtext about the virtues of traditional society and the inherent evil of foreigners. When it comes to kung fu flicks, the formula's there, and the formula's fine—that's the genre's charm, actually, or, more accurately, the framework of its charm. Drop a charismatic star like Jackie Chan into that same old story, or reinvigorate its violence with somebody who can move like Tony Jaa, or kick the genre sideways, like Stephen Chow or the Wachowskis did, and you've got something. Kung fu movies are paint by numbers, but every once in a while, somebody will have a whole lot of fun messing up the lines.
And then there's stuff like Shaolin, which stays perfectly, stultifyingly inside those lines. There are promising things here—Andy Lau as the lead, New Police Story director Benny Chan, and Jackie Chan showing up for a few minutes to basically play Yoda. But every scene feels a few minutes too long and several degrees of frown too mopey, and it all plays out exactly how you'd expect. (It's all rote enough that when a horse-drawn carriage tumbles off a moonlit cliff, you'll half expect it to burst into a fireball.) Lau—as Hou Jie, a dickbag warlord who, after personal tragedy, decides to study at the same shaolin temple he once mocked—is earnest to the point of narcolepsy, just like everything else here, aside from a few moments of broad comedy and CG wire-fu. Metaphorically and literally, a lot of action movies are about going through the motions—check out, you know, any training montage ever—but there's going through the motions to get to something better, and then there's just going through 'em, one more time.