I put off writing this review of Kung Fu Hustle for a few days because I just knew I’d never find the words to describe it. The movie is a bizarre amalgam of familiar cinematic elements, combined into something unique – and hard to convey in words. Perhaps if I describe the first scene, you will get at least a tiny inkling of the style. A group of Asian gangsters known as the Axe Gang – led by the evil Brother Sum - commit a couple of bloody murders using the weaponry their name implies. With deadly precision, they hurl their axes at their victims, whose limbs are chopped off as they try to escape. When the killing is over, the gang members retreat to their hideaway, where they engage in an elaborate dance number.
No…no, that doesn’t do the trick; it only begins to describe things. Maybe what you need to know is that the movie is ostensibly set in 1940’s Shanghai, where the Axe Gang tries to take over various parts of the city. The only “safe” places are the slums, because no one there has anything worth taking. Nevertheless, the gang is brought to Pig Sty Alley after the town idiot accidentally throws a firecracker into the hat of a passing gang member. That idiot is Sing (Stephen Chow, who also wrote and directed). Along with corpulent pal (Chi Chung Lam), Sing actually wants to join the Axe Gang, even though admission requires killing somebody. (Sing is no more a hardcore killer than Mr. Rogers.)
The citizens of Pig Sty Alley are mostly former martial arts experts, so they fight back when the Axe Gang tries to march in. The two most deadly locals are the seemingly-frail Landlord (Wah Yuen) and cranky wife Landlady (Qiu Yuen), who screams at everybody, especially those who are behind on their rent. Her special attack is “the Lion’s Roar” in which she sucks in so much air that her breasts literally inflate, then launches a blood-curdling scream that shatters glass and blows people away.
Are you starting to visualize this yet?
The Axe Gang responds by hiring a series of assassins to kill Landlord and Landlady. The couple prevails each time, so the gang locates “the world’s deadliest killer” to finish the job. First, though, they need to free him from jail, which requires finding someone who can pick the prison cell lock. Sing just happens to be phenomenal at this, so he at least temporarily gets his wish for membership. The grand finale takes place in Pig Sty Alley, where the killer demonstrates the famous “frog kung fu style” and Sing shows off some unexpected martial arts skills by running up the sides of buildings and taking on dozens of gang members at once.
I’m looking back at what I’ve written. There’s no way that I’ve even come close to describing the feel of this thing. Let me try a different approach. If you can imagine a cross between The Godfather, an old Bruce Lee movie, and a Tom & Jerry cartoon, then that’s Kung Fu Hustle. On the surface, it resembles a traditional Hong Kong action movie with a historical slant. However, the film really takes place in a world where the laws of cartoon physics apply. Killers take on the physical appearance of frogs, people bounce off walls when they fight, and a man can stop a bullet with his fingers.
Director/star Stephen Chow also made Shaolin Soccer. Like that picture, this one has a wonderfully wacky sense of humor. The heavy use of computer-generated effects in both films serves to spoof all the conventions of martial arts movies. Kung Fu films tend to go over the top anyway; Chow puts the material in a rocket ship and blows it so far into space that you can’t help but laugh. And laugh I did…the fighting scenes are so ridiculous that they ultimately achieve gloriousness. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing of substance here whatsoever, but that doesn’t really matter. Kung Fu Hustle sweeps you away with its unrepentant silliness.
There have been a number of lush martial arts films in recent years: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, House of Flying Daggers. Those are great films, all worth seeing. If you’re more in the mood for a comedy, then Kung Fu Hustle is definitely one to catch. I may not be able to do it justice with words, but one thing’s for sure: it’s a total blast from start to finish.
( out of four)
Kung Fu Hustle is rated R for sequences of strong stylized action and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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