KIDS FROM SHAOLIN is a movie that doesn't get enough respect in my humble opinion. Jet Li has had a huge following in the west, in part due to working with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as the villain in LETHAL WEAPON 4. Since then he's been known for his wire work movie from the Hong Knog New Wave period, a period which old school fans tend to overlook in favor of the shapes classics from the late seventies/early eighties period (I'm as guilty as anyone of this). But before his international stardom or his popularity playing Wong Fei-hung, Jet Li happened to help start a massive boom for classic kung fu in his home country of China with the release of SHAOLIN TEMPLE, which lead to the inevitable, but entirely unrelated sequel, which is the movie in question. You see, it's not just a silly movie, it's a silly movie that's part of the greater history of kung fu film, because it's one of the few times we can see Jet Li performing anything close to classic shapes.
The story revolves around a shaolin trained layman, Er Long, who saved, like eight or ten boys (it's pretty hard to keep count sometimes) from a group of marauding bandits. Of course, he decides to take care of them himself with the help of his brother, and settles into a home right next to a river outside a village, right across from the villages leader, the Wu-tang master swordsman Pao Shen-feng. Pao happens to have several daughters, because he really wants a boy, and won't stop having babies until he gets one to pass his swordsmanship onto. Though that doesn't keep him from teaching kung fu to his daughters. Er Long, realizing his shortcomings in the parenting department, wants to provide a mother for his adopted kids, and takes a shine to Pao's eldest daughter (I think he still looks way too old for her). Pao wants a pretty high price before he will give his daughter away, a plot point which no doubt will impress women with it's enlightened sensitivity. While all of this is happening, the children led by the opposing San Long (Jet Li) and Pao San-feng (Jet's real life girl friend at the time, Wong Chau-yin) are bickering, playing and developing crushes on each other, and the bandits have gone undercover to try and force the Shaolin kids out of the way, and take the town by surprise.
While it sounds like a whole lot is going on when written out like this, the truth is that this is as laid back as a movie can get. While the bandits are scheming, we're mostly treated to scenes of kids acting up and playing around in some utterly gorgeous locations. The kids are all fairly talented. Perhaps not in acting, but then what kid is? They handle the mischevious aspects of their characters well and are incredible at martial arts, getting more than a few chances to show off. This does present a problem for some though (not me), as this means that any serious fight sequences are mostly brief and not of the life threatning variety (at least not until the end, bear with me). There's also a bizarre musical sequence, the intro is animated, and kids dropping their pants and urinating is occasionally used as humor. Depending on your taste (or lack thereof), this may be funny or just inappropriate, but I happen to think it's innocent silliness. I also happen to think that in some ways, the light heartedness is an asset of the movie. It's not so terribly violent that a kid couldn't watch it, and the screen is filled with things that I'd think would be interesting to adults (spectacular cinematography and locations, lion dances, and the fact that it's Jet Li's second movie).
This isn't to say that the movie is without any conflict. There's plenty, usually involving undercover bandits trying to make life harder for the Shaolin family, secret affairs and mistaken accusations of infidelity. Not to mention the friendly rivalry between the Shaolin boys and the Wu-tang girls. It's not that nothing happens, meerly that it doesn't worry about happening too fast.
Of course, this does culminate in a large action sequence where the bandits attack the town (although they don't seem to get much further than the Pao household), and of course the Shaolin members do come to help them out. This is, in my opinion, the best sequence that director Cheung Yam-yim has ever done, easily trumping anything in SHAOLIN TEMPLE. For one thing, let's talk about what typically happens in an action sequence: person A hits person B, person B blocks, or gets hit, alternate and repeat. One of the things that makes this sequence work so well is the fact that it's not just persons A&B, but A,B,C,D,E,F, and G are usually all on screen and often performing real, if simple choroegraphy, as opposed to just waving their arms in the air. This means that there's motion going on in the background, adding to the chaos going on. The other very impressive aspect that Cheung nails as a director is the editing. The shots are short. Not MTV short, but they flow together in such a way that it emphasizes the freneticism of the combat. The action follows at least five major players at one time, intercutting between short sequences for each. It's fast paced, it's chaotic, and yet it flows together extremely well, contrasting with the long takes of directors like Lau Kar-leung. And the choreography itself? It's just like the first film, only even more dynamic, with more acrobatics, weapons and speed. Yu Cheng-wai fighting Sun Jian-kui with straight swords is mesmerising and so is Jet Li using a three section staff against two opponents weilding the same weapon. Combined with the director's smart camera placement and great editing, the finale is a truly accomplished piece of film making, especially regarding the genre (i.e. Fans will be impressed).
So what's the final verdict? Thumbs up from me. I think it's one of the most unique of the late shapes/early new wave films and it's one of the best showcases for Jet Li's ability before wires and injuries slowed him down so much. Combined with an ensemble cast of phenomanally talented wushu coaches, performers, and children, it's one of my favorite movie from Li.