There weren't that many people there when I went to see Kung Fu Hustle last Saturday afternoon ' a pity, because this has to be the most enjoyable movie since...well, since Shaolin Soccer, Stephen Chow's last attempt to break into the American market. That film's release was botched by Miramax, which cut it down to size and dubbed it into English. This one's been largely left alone by Sony Picture Classics. So what's the problem? The subtitles? The violence? The fact that the movie's been available on DVD for those with the right DVD players? Whatever it is, here's your chance to see this cinematic free-for-all the way it was meant to be seen: on the big screen, with the sound turned way up.
Heavily reliant on special effects, Kung Fu Hustle is to martial arts what Shaolin Soccer was to soccer and Space Jam was supposed to be to basketball: a glorified cartoon that gleefully transcends the laws of physics. Someone delivers a blow, and the recipient goes flying through the air like a cannonball. Someone takes off running, and the feet become blur lines of speed, kicking up clouds of dust. After the balletic grace of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, Kung Fu Hustle feels like a vaudeville revue, the bits drawn from the entire history of Hong Kong's chop-socky films. And the movie never lets up, hitting us with another delirious set piece before we've had the chance to recover from the last one.
There's a plot, but not much of one. Chow, who, in addition to directing the movie, co-wrote and co-produced it, also stars as Sing, a kung-fu master who's a little short on mastery. Even so, he tries to pass himself off as a member of the Axe Gang ' hatchet-wielding gentlemen dressed up like English dandies ' in the only part of town they don't care about, the impoverished Pig Sty Alley. But Pig Sty Alley, it turns out, isn't just some Chinese Dogpatch. On the contrary, it's home to the kung-fu equivalent of the Fantastic Four ' senior citizens who, like the family in The Incredibles, prefer to blend into their surroundings. But that's not possible when the Axe Gang gets wind of Sing's impersonation routine. Time to dust off the old moves.
As he showed in Shaolin Soccer, Chow roots for the underdog, especially old underdogs. And Kung Fu Hustle proves that you don't have to teach old dogs new tricks; the old ones will do just fine. The tricks come with such names as Lion's Roar and Toad Style, and they're performed by Hong Kong actors who used to be names themselves: Yuen Qiu, Leung Siu-lung, Yuen Wah. As a woman with a very big mouth and a head full of curlers, Yuen Qiu acts up a storm. She's 'Landlady,' the de facto ruler of Pig Sty Alley, and one messes with her ' 'messing with her' consisting of, say, crossing her path ' at one's own risk. But can this battle-ax handle an entire army of hatchet-wielding gentlemen dressed up like English dandies?
Not without a little help from her friends. Like so many chop-socky films, Kung Fu Hustle is a series of smackdowns, the fight card arranged so that there's always someone bigger and meaner coming along. But Chow somehow keeps it from getting boring. He's had plenty of help. The movie was shot by Poon Hang-seng, who brought us Peking Opera Blues. And the amazing fight sequences were choreographed by a pair of kung-fu masters: Yuen Wo-ping (The Matrix, Kill Bill) and Sammo Hung (A Touch of Zen). But just that Chow was able to keep this whirligig from spinning out of control seems worthy of recognition. Built for speed, Kung Fu Hustle unleashes a delightful series of jabs to the solar plexus, the optic nerve and the funny bone.