Kung Fu Hustle

Finally, Hong Kong superstar Stephen Chow gets a chance to strut his stuff with Kung Fu Hustle, which, because of extremely good advance press is opening widely, an amazing feat for a Chinese film. Hustle tells the story of a war between the murderous Axe Gang and the members of a slum called Pig Sty Alley. However, it is so much more than this. Kung Fu Hustle is a deliriously funny live action cartoon. Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou showed how graceful martial arts could be with films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers. Chow takes the next step and shows how outrageous everything can be. He mixes martial arts with Buster Keaton and Looney Tunes, stopping along the way to pay homage to West Side Story, Spider-Man, Star Wars, and Fred Astaire.

The Keaton comparison is especially apt. Chow (Shaolin Soccer, The King of Comedy) is a tremendous physical comedian, and would work well within a silent film. There is a ridiculously moronic sequence near the beginning where Sing (Chow), and his sidekick (Chung Lam Chi, Shaolin Soccer, Beauty and the Breast) are trying to throw knives at Pig Sty Alley's landlady (Yuen Qui, The Man with the Golden Gun). There is dialogue, but the scene is so silly that it works just as well without. Sing is a low-level crook, and he pretends to be part of the Axe Gang in order to shake down the poor residents of the slum. They will have none of his shenanigans, and he unintentionally brings the real gang into the fold. The rest of the story, by Chow, Cheong Kan Kang (The Black Panther Warriors, Casino Raiders 2), Huo Xin (Quitting, Shower), and Keung Man Chan is a quick escalation by both sides.

The real fun in Kung Fu Hustle comes from its expertly choreographed martial arts by Yuen Wo Ping (Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Matrix Revolutions) and Sammo Hung (The Medallion, Knock-Off) and its wacky sense of humor. Yuen and Hung create fight sequences that are both funny and thrilling. The best one is more of the latter, and occurs in the beginning when the Axe Gang initially arrives. In fact, the best stuff probably happens in the first half (another great scene is when Sing individually challenges slum residents to fight), before settling down a bit. In terms of its humor, everything is easily accessible and tends to veer towards the gag variety. This is especially important given the film is in a different language. There's a very small romantic subplot, and like most other Asian movies, lands on the cheesy side.

The characters are colorful and help contribute to the wildly original feeling present throughout the film. The Axe Gang dances and holds (what else?) axes, led by a sneering leader (Chan Kwok Kuen, Fighting to Survive, Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters) a man with a mouth full of rotten teeth. The landlady is always in hair rollers and has a cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth, and her husband (Yuen Wah, Ultimatum, Vampire Controller) bears all of her abuse. Kung fu masters live within the confines of the slum, trying to lie low. In a nice move, Chow selected older martial artists, some of whom did not act in decades and required some convincing. Kudos to Paramount Classics for giving Chow a chance. It's certainly better than what Miramax did to him.

Haro Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 35 minutes, Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles, Rated R for sequences of strong stylized action and violence.

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