Stephen Chow is probably Asian cinema's biggest star, and in a fairer world his supercharged brand of martial-arts parody would have fans lining up at multiplexes all over the world. His 2001 footie-com Shaolin Soccer kicked ass but didn't lure audiences, so here's hoping Kung Fu Hustle will grant Chow the crossover appeal he so richly deserves. Coming on like Gangs Of New York directed by Bugs Bunny, this hilarious feet'n'fists spectacular sees the Chinese firecracker soaring to new heights of inspired lunacy.
After an unexpectedly brutal opening, we're thrown headfirst into a turf war between the top-hatted dandies of the Axe Gang and the indomitable residents of Pig Sty Alley. But the Axe boys, whose hatchet skills are matched only by their snake-hipped street-dance routines, soon discover that they have chopped off more than they can chew. The ghetto is teeming with old-school kung fu masters, from a landlady with a voice that can strip paint to a humble tailor who uses curtain rings as deadly weapons.
Kung Fu Hustle quickly becomes one long, delirious, CGI-enhanced ruck, as the Axe Gang hire a string of increasingly colourful hitmen (one pair are perhaps best described as chop-socky cellists), thus forcing the masters of Pig Sty Alley into ever more desperate measures in order to survive.
Caught in the middle is Chow himself, playing his usual scruffy scoundrel and accompanied by a dimwitted, overweight sidekick whose incompetence with a throwing knife provides the film's silliest set-piece. There's even a love story of sorts involving a shy street vendor (Shengyi Huang) that adds a big dollop of sentimentality to the film's already wildy erratic tone.
Chow has hired two legendary fight choreographers - - Yuen Woo-ping and Sammo Hung - - to stage his smackdowns and the results are both spectacular and gut-bustingly funny. The film is also packed with in-jokes and movie references - - '70s martial-arts legends Leung Siu Lung and Yuen Qiu both give memorable comic turns - - but Chow's overriding influence is the cruel, brilliant mania of vintage Warner Bros cartoons. Characters charge down highways in a flurry of spinning legs, punch-ups are obscured by clouds of dust, trampled feet swell like balloons. It's pure Tex Avery and beautifully polished to boot.
While Shaolin Soccer was energetic but undisciplined, Kung Fu Hustle displays genuine visual flair and coherence. On occasion, the compositions echo the formal complexity of the Coen Brothers, combined with a Tiggerish energy that's reminiscent of Sam Raimi in his Evil Dead days. In short, it's glorious fun.
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Breathtakingly inventive and bladder-botheringly funny, this is a classic of crowd-pleasing slapstick. You'll kick yourself if you miss it.