Kung Fu Hustle

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/04/07 15:16:37

"Stephen Chow strikes again; wall-to-wall fun."
5 stars (Awesome)

Equal parts Bruce Lee and Chuck Jones, 'Kung Fu Hustle' is one of the great nonsense movies -- a smash-and-grab action farce madly in love with old Hollywood and old martial-arts flicks.

The mastermind behind it all is Stephen Chow, whose 2001 comedy Shaolin Soccer broke box-office records in Hong Kong; Miramax bought it for release in the States, but delayed it and then fumbled it in 2004 -- but by then, lots of people (including me) had seen it on one import disc or another and eagerly awaited Chow's next. Chow seems to have been given a much larger piggy bank this time; Kung Fu Hustle is a triumph of set design, taking us from the flea-bitten slum of Pig Sty Alley to the swanky atmosphere of what looks like 1930s Hong Kong. In these environments, the laws of physics no longer apply, if they ever did; characters leap, run at neck-breaking speed, bash each other through several walls with one blow. Weightless as a feather, the movie takes its cue from such gravity-defying works as Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and then ramps it up into a comedy of excess.

Chow stars as Sing, a ne'er-do-well lockpick and thief who wants to be accepted into the fearsome Axe Gang -- a group of toughs whose sartorial choices are a nod to both the Crazy 88s of Kill Bill and Bill the Butcher's gang in Gangs of New York. The Axe Gang terrorizes everyone except the residents of Pig Sty Alley, a dirt-poor slum concealing some unlikely kung-fu masters. Humiliated by a run-in with said masters, the Axe Gang vows revenge, calling in a pair of hired killers whose main weapon is a deadly harp that generates spectral swords and skeletons. When that doesn't work, the Beast (Leung Siu Lung) is called in -- a mousy-looking fellow with a bad combover, who nevertheless wipes the floor with almost any adversary without thinking about it much. Only one person is fated to be the Master who can defeat the Beast, and that person is too busy trying (and hilariously failing) to ingratiate himself with the Axe Gang.

For most of the movie, Chow plays Sing as a grubby opportunist, an idealist turned bitter pessimist ("Good guys never win" was the lesson he took away from a youthful attempt at a Buddhist Palm defense against some bullies). His destiny is redemption, but it's hard-won, and when Chow pulls out the stops and introduces the now-grown-up mute girl Sing tried to rescue as a boy, the Hollywood sap runs as thick as the implausibility of the stunts -- Chow actually poses the two against a poster of Astaire and Rogers. And it works. It's far from the only tip of the hat to Chow's ancestors; during the climax, Sing goes through two changes of outfit that pay explicit homage to Bruce Lee, though Chow isn't as serious-minded as Lee was. For instance, he gives a lot of screen time to the landlady (Qiu Yuen) and landlord (Wah Yuen) of Pig Sty Alley, who seem like comic-relief squabblers until the movie reveals more up their sleeves. Qiu Yuen, a staple of Hong Kong movies back in the '70s, should become a fan favorite all over again; decked out in hair rollers and an ever-present cigarette, she's so relentlessly irascible she's funny, like Captain Lou Albano in Wise Guys.

The stuntwork here was supervised and choreographed by Master Yuen Wo Ping, the avatar of brutal cool (he designed the fights for Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, and the Matrix films). The spinning wirework of those films is just a hair away from comedy anyway, and Chow merrily pushes it into the realm of the absurd while sacrificing none of its beauty or dazzlement -- or excitement. People in Hollywood spend a lot of money flailing around witlessly to achieve the anti-gravity of cartoons, seldom coming close to what Chow does here. The extensive CGI is used to heighten and then demolish reality. Flesh folds or flattens against fists; dozens of gang members scatter into the sky, sometimes kicked into each other. The tone is light but not callous -- little blood is shed (except for a goofy one-off sight gag that tweaks the elevator scene in The Shining for no apparent reason). The most painful blow in the movie is when a sentimental-value lollipop is shattered.

Kung Fu Hustle came (in this country) on the heels of two other movies that leave mundane reality far behind -- Ong-Bak, in which Tony Jaa folds time and space all by himself, and Sin City, which takes place in some gleaming hellhole in Frank Miller's head. Taken together -- and they really should be shown together, if any imaginative movie-night programmers are listening -- these films represent a restless and reckless energy powered by a love of what movies at their best can do: transfix, transport, and transcend.

Blessed with the most fluid camerawork since Sam Raimi in his prime, and punctuated with stunning action sequences to match, 'Kung Fu Hustle' is proof positive that whatever the future of movies may be, it certainly doesn't have to be boring.

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