Kung fu and a marathon-running criminal headline the new offerings at Ogden’s Art House Cinema 502 this week.
Set in the warlord era of early 20th-century China, Shaolin casts Andy Lau as Hou Jie, a cruel general who violates the titular Buddhist temple—the birthplace of kung fu—to kill an adversary. But when Hou’s attempt at a treacherous consolidation of power is thwarted by the betrayal of his brother, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), Hou must turn to the monks of Shaolin for a chance at redemption. There’s a simple, direct quality to the narrative that holds the moral evolution of Hou at the center even when the 130-minute running time starts to drag a bit and the various secondary characters become indistinguishable. Mostly, it’s a straightforward combination of historical spectacle with wire-work kung fu by legendary martial-arts choreographer Cory Yuen, including a terrific sequence with Jackie Chan—in a supporting role as the monastery’s timid cook—battling enemy soldiers. It may not be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it’s a smooth and satisfying heroes-vs.-villains melodrama.
There’s little that’s smooth or satisfying, unfortunately, about The Robber, writer/director Benjamin Heisenberg’s adaptation of a novel based on a real-life Austrian criminal. Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust) has just been paroled after a six-year prison stint for robbery, staying in top shape as a marathon runner throughout. But just as he’s unable to stop running, he’s unable to stop himself from stealing, and he returns to his old ways immediately upon hitting the streets of Vienna. Don’t waste any time wondering why Rettenberger does what he does, because Heisenberg certainly doesn’t. The character remains a blank-faced enigma throughout, his twin compulsions simply offered up for us to puzzle over. And the film simply doesn’t work effectively enough on any visceral level—a couple of narrow escapes from the police notwithstanding—to make up for the fact that we learn nothing about what motivates anybody here (including the woman who inexplicably becomes his lover). Like Rettenberger himself, The Robber simply keeps going and going, pounding along … until it’s time to stop.