Hollywood started the game by serving the Western, with its larger-than-life, lone-hero mythos. Across the Pacific, filmmakers versed in martial arts traditions knocked back the kung fu flick, making global superstars from the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. American film-geek directors like Quentin Tarantino returned with obsessively loving chop-sockey tributes.
And now actor/filmmaker Stephen Chow takes Hollywood's spirit of homage and its digital trickery to put a supersonic spin on the genre with Kung Fu Hustle.
Sure, plenty of martial arts flicks start with rival mobsters beating each other to a pulp in the streets. But when Chow shows the sinister Axe Gang - top-hatted, hatchet-wielding toughs - consolidate its power in a peppy, axe-in-hand dance number, Kung Fu Hustle sails into the pop-culture stratosphere and hangs there, punching, kicking and walking on air.Much of the film takes place in Pig Sty Alley, a lively, overstuffed slum with sight gags and lovable stereotypes seemingly crammed into every corner. The harridan Landlady (Yuen Qiu), with her ever-present housecoat, curlers and cigarette jammed in the corner of her mouth, could have stepped right out of a comic strip. Unlucky Sing (Chow) tries to run a penny-ante con on the alley's humble folk by impersonating a fearsome gangster - but accidentally brings the wrath of the real Axe Gang on the innocents.
Kung Fu Hustle amounts to a series of wildly staged fight scenes, in which the most unlikely characters turn out to be wizards at fisticuffs. A major set piece pits a leering lunatic in underwear and plastic flip-flops vs. a middle-aged couple in tacky tourist clothes. (Virtually all of Kung Fu Hustle's supporting players are former chop-sockey stars.) As if in an escalating arm's race with himself, Chow brings into the fray increasingly deadly combatants and even weirder special effects. The film's strangest assassins strum a harp, and the musical notes leave blade marks on buildings and flesh alike.
Kung Fu Hustle shares the same legendary Hong Kong fight choreographer as the Matrix and Kill Bill movies, but Chow brings a breezy sense of the ridiculous to the whole genre. Whenever the director turns to Matrix-style computer imagery, it's in the service of some zany visual joke worthy of Mad magazine. At one point, Sing takes a punch to the chest, and a fist-shaped hole blows out the back of his shirt. When the Landlady furiously chases Sing down a country road and the two zoom in and out of traffic, their legs speed up to invisible blurs, like the Roadrunner's.
Chow applies the same crazed creativity he brought to Shaolin Soccer, his delightful sports spoof barely seen in the United States, thanks to Miramax's botched release. Yet Kung Fu Hustle can be cartoonish to a fault. Chow strains so hard to entertain, to keep us constantly wowed and tickled, that he gives short shrift to his characters. Some come on strong - like snake-eyed Kwok Kuen Chan as the Axe Gang's drawling leader - then get arbitrarily drop-kicked out of the story.
Chow engagingly plays Sing as a chicken-hearted clown, like one of Woody Allen's cowardly heroes from his early, funny work. But Sing spends so much time cringing on the sidelines that we never really care whether "He is The One!" (another riff on the Matrix). As a joke-cracking, rule-breaking filmmaker, however, Chow may really be the one, someone who can turn a disrespected but beloved genre upside down and inspire another generation of artists.