Original Title: Gong Fu
Directed by: Stephen Chow
Year of Release: 2004 (China), April 2005 (US)
Languages: Cantonese, Mandarin, English
Subtitles: English, French
A spoiler-free review
How to make a Stephen Chow movie:
- Take the Hero Myth and tweak it in unexpected directions.
- Infuse cartoony violence.
- Take back wuxia from the Wachowskis.
- Bask in the cult following.
Kung Fu Hustle is the second film to make it to a wider US audience (Shaolin Soccer being the other one) that follows this formula. In this one, Sing (played by Stephen Chow again) is a smalltime lowlife who wants to become bigtime by joining the Axe Gang, a ruthless clan of killers running 1940s Hong Kong. As he is a natural bad luck magnet, these efforts are doomed to failure. Only his skill at picking locks saves him; at the same time, it brings him into direct conflict resulting from Axe Gang's bid for turf and a housing complex full of working folk who just want to be left alone.
The plot goes on from there at a fairly predictable pace with plenty of gratuitous action, a hero's redemption, the inevitable trouncing of the bad guys, and of course a smidgeon of a love story. Oh yes, urination on defeated foes also made it in. Despite a few non-sequitur moments, the film moves along quite well throughout its 90 minutes.
For those who have seen Shaolin Soccer, the over-the-top special combat effects will be familiar; for those who haven't, be aware that this is neither the graceful flying you may have seen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nor the fast-paced superpowered brawling of The Matrix; instead it's a bit of both, with a good chunk of Roadrunner vs. Wile E. Coyote blended in (especially in one bit). People and things fly through walls and roofs, villains take feet and fists to the face with only a slight rubberlike deformation, and combatants' limbs blur in an ultrasonic frenzy. If you don't laugh out loud, or gasp in amazement at some of the ridiculous, CGI-enhanced stunts that occur in the movie, you're just too old (or never enjoyed cartoons in the first place, of course).
Stephen Chow stars as the lead again, but the smaller cast of supporting characters makes it possible to focus on them individually a bit more. This is a good thing™ as it allows for some truly memorable characters to stand out from the hundreds of disposable goons (in true law of inverse ninjas fashion). The team size required for Shaolin Soccer's line-up made all the characters a bit samey; this problem is not repeated here. Of course the exaggeration of each character's traits doesn't hurt either. All of the supporting characters do a phenomenal job at bringing their characters to caricature life.
If you liked Shaolin Soccer, see Kung Fu Hustle now. If you didn't, don't. If you haven't seen either one but enjoy silly, well-made action films with some fancy combat scenes, give this one a whirl. Be warned though: despite the cartoonish violence, the copious blood and dramatic deaths are real - this is not a movie for kids.