There hasn’t been a more highly anticipated film in recent years than “Kung Fu Hustle”, the latest action/comedy offering from Hong Kong’s Stephen Chow (“Shaolin Soccer”). Upon release, the movie broke box office records, and a sequel is already being talked up, even although indications are that writer/director/star Stephen Chow hasn’t committed. The film could certainly stand a sequel, as “Kung Fu Hustle” is too breezy for its own good, coming and going at a brisk 90-odd minutes. And if the film’s many kung fu battles look familiar, that’s probably because action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping also graced “The Matrix” films with his talent. In many ways, just as you could never have had a “Matrix” film without the Hong Kong films from which it took much of its inspiration, you could never have “Kung Fu Hustle” without the technological pioneering of the Wachowski brothers.
“Hustle” is set sometime in an early 20th century Chinese city, where young punk Sing arrives at a rundown apartment complex appropriately named Pig Sty Alley. Sing and cohort Chi Chung Lam, posing as members of the notorious Axe Gang, tries to shake down the inhabitants of Pig Sty, but quickly discovers that not all is what it seems. There are three kung fu masters secretly living in the complex, and after Sing calls forth members of the Axe Gang (purely by accident, natch), a royal rumble of epic proportions commences. (Although the Axe Gang is named such for their favoring of axes, they have nothing against Tommy guns when the situation calls for more firepower.)
After the gang gets royally trounced by the three masters, the Axe Gang’s embarrassed leader (Kwok Kuen Chan) seeks help from two notorious killers. When those killers are equally trounced by two more kung fu masters hiding out Pig Sty Alley (this place is full of kung fu masters!), the Axe Gang unleashes the infamous skills of the Beast (Leung Siu Lung), who legend has it was so obsessed with mastering kung fu that he went mad, and had to be locked away in a mental asylum. It’s here that the ambitious Sing, who wants desperately to be a member of the Axe Gang, springs the Beast to do battle. Can the selfish Sing come to his senses long enough to save the day? And how come he broke that mute girl’s lollipop? Now that’s just rude.
Although “Kung Fu Hustle” is a Chow movie, the character Sing is curiously missing for much of the film, and doesn’t really do anything of real note until the Third Act, when Sing unexpectedly (re: conveniently) turns his back on the Axe gang to become a good guy. Most of the film’s first half follows the exploits of Pig Sty Alley’s residents, of which there are quite a few colorful characters, including the aforementioned five hidden kung fu masters, one of whom turns out to be appropriately nicknamed “fairy”. Every now and then the film shows us what Sing and his sidekick are doing, but you can’t help but think that Chow’s committed so much to making the kung fu fights look good that he’s forgotten to justify his appearance in the movie.
Not that story matters with a movie like this. “Kung Fu Hustle” is a tremendously entertaining film from beginning to end, and although it’s sold as a comedy, the film actually works a lot better as a martial arts movie, because my oh my are there a lot of martial arts battles to be found. And because Yuen Woo Ping is doing the action (supposedly he took over from Sammo Hung, who left the movie due to creative differences with Chow), there are plenty of Ping flourishes to be found. In fact, if you’ve seen “The Matrix” movies, a lot of the sequences will look familiar here. After all, what’s a Yuen Woo Ping movie without a character getting kicked, is lifted vertically into the air by said kick, and then getting kicked again, this second kick sending him flying horizontally? That’s trademark Ping action right there, folks.
Complimenting the wild action is a lot of computer special effects, in particular a lot of switches between real life flesh and blood and their CGI counterparts. And I do mean a lot. The film is practically overflowing with CGI action, done in that cartoony style that makes sense in a movie like this. People bounce off walls, whole buildings get destroyed in tides of “kung fu aura”, and general mayhem lays waste to much of Pig Sty Alley. It’s all good, clean fun, although Chow is not shy about killing people off in some pretty gruesome manners. A character loses his head, another gets hit so hard his head literally screwballs like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, and at one point Chow’s character gets literally punched into mincemeat.
Not that there isn’t comedy to go around. The film has some good chuckles, but I can’t say if there’s anything really laugh out loud funny about it. There’s only really one standout comedy bit, and in it Sing and his sidekick are sent to kill the nasty, foulmouthed landlady (Yuen Qiu) of Pig Sty Alley. Armed with three knives, the duo can only manage to embed all three knives accidentally into Sing, before they’re forced to flee upon being discovered. Funny stuff, made more so because Chow shoots the whole sequence with a straight face. The look on Sing’s face, as he attempts to comprehend what’s just happened to him, is priceless.
Would I have liked to see more story in “Kung Fu Hustle”? Yes, very much so. The movie is too short, which is made more noticeable because it has an abundance of subplots that begs to be followed up on. Instead, characters are introduced in fashions that make you think they’ll matter to the overall story, only to drop completely out of sight. And as mentioned, Sing’s screentime is limited until the Third Act, making the character’s romance with a mute ice cream girl barely credible. In total, the two “love interests” share about 3 scenes total, each one lasting less than 30 seconds. Perfunctory? More like an afterthought.
Although not nearly as funny as Chow’s previous films (“Forbidden City Cop” and “Soccer” comes to mind), “Kung Fu Hustle” is one heck of an action film, brimming with wild, out of control martial arts fights. Except for Chow, everyone who engages in the movie’s kung fu battles look as if they were hired for their fighting skills — if you know what I mean. When it comes to the film’s shamefully short length, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that as much as 30 minutes were edited out to put more emphasis on the non-stop action. This is one of those cases where you wish a movie were longer, if just to fill in more of the blanks.
Stephen Chow (director) / Tsang Kan Cheong, Stephen Chow, Xin Huo, Chan Man Keung (screenplay)
CAST: Kwok Kuen Chan …. Brother Sum
Stephen Chow …. Sing
Dong Zhi Hua …. Doughnut
Chi Chung Lam …. Sing’s Sidekick
Siu Lung Leung …. The Beast
Hsiao Liang …. Axe Gang Leader
Leung Siu Lung …. The Beast
Yuen Qiu …. Landlady
Wah Yuen …. Landlord