Stephen Chow likes kung fu movies, and he wants you to like 'em too. How will he go about achieving this? Well, here's how... He'll throw everything hes got at you. And more. References to everything from Loony Tunes to good old Bruce Lee films, crazy fighting styles, pinball sounds, slapstick humor, computer generated effects like you've never seen them, and he'll even throw in a little dance sequence too.
It's pointless to resist. Chow is just too fast, too shrewd, too original. Just give up, lean back, and enjoy the hustle...
We're in the Canton province in China, somewhere in the 1940's. The region is ruled by the gangsters, and no gang is more vicious than the dreaded Axe Gang, whose signature axe wielding moves will send even the most notorious gangsters packing, with at least one limb missing. The police can do nothing but watch.
Now we shift our focus to the so-called Pig Sty Alley, a poor neighbourhood so crummy the gang lords don't even care about it. But what it lacks in gang involvement, it makes up for in the vicious landlady and her gay-ish husband, who terrorise the residents, and steal every penny they got.
Enter con man Sing (Stephen Chow) and his trusty companion. Posing as members of the Axe Gang, they try to cheat their way to a few easy bucks, from the local vendors in Pig Sty Alley. But they don't buy the act, and the two hapless hustlers must flee from an angry mob. Sing cries out for help, and suddenly a group of real Axe Gang members respond, and then all hell breaks lose.
But then the low life businessmen of Pig Sty Alley step up, and make a stand. They send the gangsters packing with no return ticket. When the leader of the Axe Gang, Brother Sum, learns about this, he becomes obsessed with Pig Sty Alley, and calls in reinforcements. Little does he know that he is about to bite off more than he can chew.
Among the residents of Pig Sty Alley are three former kung fu masters, who will not go down without a fight. Meanwhile Sing, who tries to becomes a fully-fledged member of the Axe Gang, begins to sense that he might be on the wrong side. Deep inside him lies the seed to a great destiny. He has been chosen for a higher purpose, and soon fate will catch up with him...
Anticipation was high when Stephen Chow announced this follow-up to his international breakthrough "Shaolin Soccer". Combining soccer, with kung fu stunts and state-of-the-art CGI was certainly a unique idea, and a hard act to follow. How did Chow fare? Well, there's good news and bad news.
THE GOOD NEWS
One. The fights will blow you away. They are - quite literally - second to none. Designed to perfection, shot with an unprecedented sense of clarity and panache. This is truly inspired stuff. Taking his cue from "The Matrix", and garnishing it with some "Loony Tunes" inspired touches, Chow has not just surpassed the competition. He's created a completely new genre, all by himself. In that respect Chow can easily call himself the new Jackie Chan, or perhaps a Jackie Chan for a new time.
Two. The effects are outstanding. This is the single most impressive effect driven film to emerge from Asia. Ever. The film borrows heavily from the Burly Brawl sequence from the second "Matrix" film, where Neo fights a hundred Agent Smith clones, each dressed in identical black suits. Here Sing fights members of the Axe Gang dressed in similar black suits. But where "Matrix Reloaded" quickly lost it's cool and turned into a CGI freakshow, "Kung Fu Hustle" keeps the style a little more earthbound, and manages to hold on to the realism a lot longer. The end result is just so much better than "Reloaded".
Three. The film looks amazing. Chow's got the period look down to a T, and the film looks nothing short of epic. Chow gets maximum bang for his buck, as he relishes in that 40's gangster movie setting, but most importantly, he knows how to shoot the whole thing, so that we don't miss any details.
THE BAD NEWS
First, there's no story.
Strip away all the indifferent subplots, and the core story - about Chow's character finding his true place in life - could be over and done with in 15 minutes. This is a problem, because it allows the film to indulge in, and get distracted by, the many insane set pieces. Stuff that may be impressive to look at, but it takes up an awful lot of time, and the story grinds to a halt every time that happens. There are so many of these sequences - without Chow's character - that he often disappears from the story for long periods at a time. In fact, one could argue that the film doesn't even have a proper lead character, since it's not actually Sing's story that we follow.
Second, the mood is off-key.
The film is overly bloody, cruel and malicious. It's not funny, it's homophobic and generally just mean-spirited. Raw violence doesnt mix with slapstick humor, because it's little difficult to laugh at the funny stuff, when moments later people are getting smashed to a pulp, shot or pissed on (yes, actually pissed on) for real.
Third, the characters aren't worth a damn.
Sing is possibly the weakest link. He's our hero, but I have no sympathy what so ever for him. He's a hustler, out to make a quick buck, no matter who gets hurt in the process. The lead in "Shaolin Soccer" - apparently also called Sing - at least had a dream, he wanted to make something of himself, but Kung Fu Sing is just a low life scumbag. Actually there isn't a single one of the major characters that are even a little bit likeable, and that's really a problem.
Sing is so unappealing that the film has to pull a rabbit out of the hat, to turn him into a hero in the final act. It comes up with some BS story about hidden talents in the most unlikely person, talents that can be awakened at a time of crisis. And yes, with a little paraphrasing that means this is another one of those stories where someone is searching for "the chosen one". I think I'll puke if I see another film with "a chosen one".
Despite its faults "Kung Fu Hustle" is still one hell of a ride. There's just so much to look at, so much for your senses to take in. In fact you might be so overwhelmed by the spectacle, you won't even notice the things I've pointed out, and then Chow has truly triumphed.
In my eyes, however, "Kung Fu Hustle" is not half the film "Shaolin Soccer" was. It's not nearly as charming, not as funny, and Chow's success has made him overconfident to the point of being obnoxious.
Take it down a notch, Chow. Sometimes less is more.