Shaolin Wooden Men was the second film Jackie Chan did for Lo Wei Productions and the first film he did under director Chen Chi-Hwa (who also directed Jackie in Half a Loaf of Kung Fu) though Lo would get Supervising Director credit. Chan was lent out to this up-and-coming director who would give him more room to experiment. Jackie gave more effort on his martial art styles by mutating traditional forms like the snake form (one of Jackie's favorites) giving more flowing and flamboyant movement and being less classical in structure. Unfortunately, he did not have much say in his character development with a character that was still in Bruce Lee's shadow. Shaolin Wooden Men was considered the second flop in a row for a Jackie Chan led film.
Jackie played a mute young man (called Dummy in the dubbed version) whose father She Lan was killed by an unknown assailant. I've read a couple of different rumors on why Chan was mute in this film: to make it easier on him acting and the other rumor was that Lo did not have confidence in his acting skill. Jackie's character has sworn revenge and to increase his martial artist skills he becomes an earnest student in a Shaolin monastery. He has trouble at first adjusting to monk life. Such activities as using lead shoes to carry water up and pour in barrels and chopping wood was difficult for the mute but he would note be prevented from learning Shaolin martial arts. It would normally take five years of this training before he could start on his fighting training, but the mute was crafty. He learned balance techniques from a drunken monk (Miu Tak San). He befriended a visiting female Buddhist named Nun Woo Mei (Cheung Bing Yuk) who taught him "Ten Shadows Eight Steps" to make him lighter on his feet. Several scenes of this technique reminded me of several of Missy Elliot's videos.
In order to leave the Shaolin monastery Jackie would have to pass a test of fighting. He would have to go through a gauntlet of mechanized Wooden Men (strangely looking like a Monty Python gag) that many monks with more advanced training that the mute have failed. The mute was lucky in finding a Shaolin prisoner who befriended him and in exchange for food and wine would train him. Fa Yu (Kam Kong) is a curmudgeon character who says he is only captured until he learns "The Lion's Roar" which will shatter the internals of his enemies (or at least provide a cheesy sound effect.) He taught the mute several techniques which would help him pass the gauntlet as well as improve his fighting prowess.
The Shaolin Wooden Men only play a small part of this film. The mute inevitably passes the test and burns the dragon and tiger insignias into his forearms by lifting a searing hot cauldron that marks the opening into freedom and the beginning of his travails. First he must deliver a message from Fa Yu to a gimpy pharmacologist who owns the Tsun Chung Pharmacy in the town of Ching Ho who is part of the Green Dragon and White Tiger gangs. This pretty much establishes Fa Yu with those gangs and the rest of the film deals with the (other) inevitable aspects of his escape and why he was imprisoned by the Shaolin.
The martial arts are above standard, but not as good as the later Jackie Chan films. Though the final fight sequence does last awhile and is the highlight fight of the film. The plot is a martial art cliché with a student enrolling in a Shaolin Academy to learn Kung Fu to avenge the death of his father. There is also the ubiquitous training manual "Justice against the Devil" given to Jackie by a blind monk. However, the relationship between the mute and his teacher Fa Yu is an interesting angle reminding me of the relationship of Yuen Biao and Lau Kar Wing in Knockabout. Chan seems a little unsure of his acting ability, even without voice, but he always looks professional with the martial art choreography. I think most people will like the later Jackie Chan films better, but if you find a decent copy of this film they will think it is a decent film -- though not much better. Note: look for an early small speaking role for Yuen Biao.
DVD Info: Choosing the right copy is also important. I own two different copies of the film both with their own problems. The Columbia copy reigns in about 96 minutes though it misses 10 minutes of the beginning. These ten minutes are very fun to watch. It includes the "showcase" beginning with Jackie fighting four monks each with a different animal style. It then includes his character having a nightmare dealing with the Shaolin Python Wooden Men and then a sequence showing normal life at the Shaolin temple. The Columbia version is also cropped to a 1.78 aspect. The line on the DVD about preserving the original aspect is hooey. The benefit of this DVD is that it has the Mandarin soundtrack and good subtitles. The second version I own is the Telefilms Internation DVD (also R1 and also hooey about being the Original Uncut Version) which has the original aspect, a more clear screen and the beginning that is missing in the Columbia version. This version is missing ten minutes that are in the Columbia version though it cost me only two dollars. It is missing any extras like subtitles or other languages. So the best thing to do is look for a copy that has 106 minutes or over, is not cropped and is not R1.