Director: Stanley Tong
Notable Cast: Wang Baoqiang, Ni Da Hong, Du Gui-Yu, Solange Maggie, Ng Man-Tat, Yu Hai
When the initial teaser dropped for Rising Shaolin: The Protector, a film that definitely doesn’t need such an unnecessary subtitle, the hype became overwhelming in my soul. As a massive fan of the Jet Li Shaolin Temple series, seeing a modern action icon like Wang Baoqiang pull off the series of Shaolin kung fu forms in various seasonal weather was all that I needed to justify seeing this film.
Granted, that hype was tempered by the phrase “directed by Stanley Tong.” Just the thought that a Stanley Tong film would be a red flag appalled the 15-year-old version of me in my heart. His early work on Super Cop 3 and Rumble in the Bronx helped guide me into Hong Kong cinema, but his recent work - the inept lunacy of Vanguard and Kung Fu Yoga - is incredibly disappointing. Even with a passion project like Rising Shaolin, it was hard not to have traumatic flashbacks to his recent films.
In this modern update to the Shaolin kung fu genre, Rising Shaolin follows a man (Wang Baoqiang) as he attempts to make a living by conning travelers into purchasing materials and food at his inn by having his friends pose as bandits. When the government, led by one of his friends looking to work his way into a military rank, finds out of his trickster ways and aims to use him to frame another government official. In a bid to run, he ends up training under a lone Shaolin monk before looking to right the wrongs of his life.
In a strange turn of events though, Rising Shaolin is both surprisingly solid and a perplexing misfire. The mood of those two feelings sways rapidly from scene to scene and it creates such a baffling case of whiplash for its audience. Much of the narrative of the film is painted in broad strokes, particularly much of the secondary plot elements that can be both shocking (the relationship between father and son) and tragically underdeveloped (the romantic subplot). Yet, the main reason for the inconsistency of tone and intent is the struggle to find the balance between the serious, dramatic character work and the slapstick humor, particularly in the first half of the film. The ability to walk that line is admirable. The balance of comedy, action, and drama was one that so many classic films in the genre could pull off. Rising Shaolin misses that mark. Large portions of the film end up more akin to parody. There may be a thin line between homage and parody, but the feeling between those comes across here as an astounding crevasse. Rising Shaolin tragically stumbles down that cavern with the utmost clumsiness.
However, while the core balance and tonality are a missing link, Rising Shaolin does have two key aspects that will appease most kung fu fans. Firstly, the fight work is surprisingly solid. While Tong has a notable career working with some of the best in the industry - and by best, I mean specifically Jackie Chan and his stunt team - he certainly has a team of choreographers, stars, and stuntmen that ably carry the film through, particularly in the second act. The film tends to lean slapstick heavy for the first half, but once that is dropped, it’s a smorgasbord of fun and creative fight sequences worthy of the viewer’s time. It capitalizes on the classic shaolin aspects and delivers plenty of thrills and spills while doing so.
Secondly, Rising Shaolin makes very strong use of its lead star, Wang Baoqiang. The massive star has proven his range and worth from comedies like Detective Chinatown to villains in Kung Fu Killer or dramatic heft in more artsy films like A Touch of Sin. His career and style of performance is one of the more dynamic ones in all of cinema currently and he manages to fit most of his talents and range into this one film. Rising Shaolin benefits massively from his work as he embeds all of the necessary nuance, charm, and martial arts prowess necessary to pull off the endeavor. When he’s asked to be humorous, he’s committed to the pratfalls 100%. When he needs to be big and bold in throwing around dramatic weight, he commits. Quite frankly, he’s the one key reason that anything in Rising Shaolin works.
Perhaps my expectations were a bit high, although it would seem that Rising Shaolin does understand those expectations by delivering the multi-seasonal training montage and having the iconic actor Yu Hai as the Shaolin monk that our hero meets, but the pieces are often at odds with one another. Some fantastic fight work and a charismatic lead will definitely carry the film some distance, but unmemorable secondary characters, a cheap overall TV influenced look, and tonality inconsistencies are almost insurmountable for the film. Still, for kung fu fans, there is enough here to warrant a viewing if the film ever fully makes its way beyond the film festival circuit. It’s just not the instant nostalgia powered modern classic it might have been.