Kung Fu Dunk (2008) Movie Review

Although based upon the manga “Slam Dunk”, “Kung Fu Dunk” is basically an attempt to emulate the success of Hong Kong comedy megastar Stephen Chow’s smash hit “Shaolin Soccer”. A vehicle for popster/actor/director Jay Chou, the film gives him a chance to combine his passions for basketball and martial arts, with director Kevin Chu Yen Ping (known for commercial hits such as “Young Policemen in Love” and “Flying Dagger”) doing his best to lay on the usual Lunar New Year style comedy shenanigans.

The film follows Jay Chou as Fang Shi Jie, a young man who was found abandoned near a basketball court as a baby and who grew up in a mystical though wacky martial arts school. While lounging around the street one night amusing himself by throwing empty cans into rubbish bins, he catches the leering eye of trickster Zhen Li (Eric Tsang, in full-on hyperactive bumbling idiot mode), who attempts to milk money from him by turning his considerable kung fu skills to basketball. Marketing him with a bizarre sob story about his being a ‘basketball orphan’, Li manages to shove him rather ungraciously into a top university team where he quickly becomes a star. Soon enough he is knee deep in trouble as he and his new friends head for a show down with a particularly nasty rival team, while matters are further complicated by his half-hearted efforts to win the heart of the team mascot (Charlene Choi in a nothing role).

With the plot and most of the scenes having been lifted directly from “Shaolin Soccer”, the film to a large extent relies upon Chou to keep things interesting. Sadly, he doesn’t yet have the presence or charisma of Chow, turning in an expressionless performance, though to be fair this is at least in part due to the fact that the role of Fang is woefully two dimensional and sketchily written, making for a weak protagonist with little in the way of character development. The script in general is awful, being little more than a series of randomly thrown together clichés, leaving both him and the rest of the supporting cast with no real scope for anything in the way of what might be thought of as professional acting.

As a result, the drama lacks any kind of emotional connection with the viewer, further undermined by the glaring absence of the usual kind of underdog spirit and personal journey narrative arc that drive sports genre films. Even for the Lunar New Year comedy genre the film is an empty, scattershot affair, and though it doesn’t go so far as to tarnish the reputations of anyone involved, it certainly represents a cynical waste of talent. Of course, such criticisms are not exactly unexpected, and given that most viewers will have probably lowered their standards and disengaged their brains before watching they arguably don’t count for much.

The humour is inoffensive, lowest common denominator stuff, mainly revolving around simple language gags and basic slapstick, and although aside from a handful of amusing moments the film isn’t particularly funny, it is generally amiable enough. Needless to say, a fair few of the laughs are unintentional, notably those arising from scenes involving Wilson Chen’s hard drinking team captain, who is never seen without his trusty hipflask, a can of beer or a bottle of vodka. One of the all time great unbelievable celluloid alcoholics, the ridiculous role sees him swigging away during games in hilariously unrealistic fashion, never once seeming inebriated in the least or coming close to sullying his pretty boy look. The film makes no attempt whatsoever to explore his screamingly obvious booze problem beyond lazily equating it with a past defeat and using it to highlight the fact that he is vaguely troubled – cue flashbacks.

Chu’s direction is reasonably competent throughout, in a bouncy, colourful way, though he seems far more comfortable with the basketball scenes than anything else. Certainly, the film is a lot more fun on court than off, and despite some cheap looking CGI and an overabundance of slow motion the game scenes are well handled and exciting enough. Unsurprisingly, Chu packs in a high quotient of montages, all backed by the expected soundtrack of upbeat pop, though these work well in the context and help to keep things moving along at a brisk pace. Sadly, there is little in the way of the promised martial arts basketball or crazy special powers until the final scene, though Chu almost manages to make up for this by adding in some truly surreal and ludicrous touches.

Thanks to this, “Kung Fu Dunk” is just about flashy enough to detract from its complete lack of depth and originality and to earn it pass marks as a piece of popcorn entertainment. Whilst it is s shame that director Chu apparently harboured no ambitions beyond churning out piece of star vehicle product designed to cash in on the success of a bigger and better film, by these modest standards it makes for enjoyable viewing and should certainly be lapped up by Jay Chou fans.

Yen-ping Chu (director) / Takehiko Inoue (comic)
CAST: Bo-lin Chen, Charlene Choi, Jay Chou, Yen-ping Chu, James Z. Feng, Eddy Ko, Lichun Lee, Ka-Yan Leung, Ken Lin, Man Tat Ng, Eric Tsang, Kenneth Tsang, Jacky Tsung-hsien Wu

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