Kung Fu Hustle

Beautifully realised slice of chop sockey hokum.

Released in 2004, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 02 Jul 2005 by Scott Morris
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"No more soccer," says gangster wannabe Sing (Steven Chow) after a moment's showboating to some assembled kiddywinks, bursting the ball with a stomp. Even in a movie that's not shy about the number of winks and nudges to other classic films, this nod to writer / director Chow's last outing Shaolin Soccer seems a little audacious. However, it's probably justified. After packing cinemas domestically with the wonderfully silly Shaolin Soccer and going on to reasonable worldwide takings, he's earned some self belief and goes on to break his own personal best with this sublime 20's era gangster / wushu crossover.

It fires one of the finest opening salvos since Takashii's Dead Or Alive. Robbers beating up cops, robbers beating up robbers, casual death dealing, a combination of the blindingly obvious faction naming of Shaolin Soccer (the Evil Team being replaced by The Axe Gang, a Gang of gangsters who use Axes, naturally), duplicity and a short dance routine. It's the sort of enthusiastic filmmaking that genre fans will absolutely lap up and should draw any casual observers in too.

Sing's small time scams with his sidekick (Chi Chung Lam, returning from Shaolin Soccer along with most of the other cast members) meet with little success, but things get really critical when they try to pass themselves off as Axe Gang Mafiosi in Pig Sty Alley. A poor area supposedly of little interest to the gangs vying for control of the city, things change quickly when the spirited chain-smoking Landlady (Yuen Qiu) runs Sing out of town straight into the path of an Axe Gang patrol. This lack of respect for the awesome power of the dark side can't go unchecked, but any punitive beatdowns are blocked by three incognito kung-fu masters previously living peacefully as a Coolie (Xing Yu), a Tailor (Chiu Chi Ling) and the chef Doughnut (Dong Zhi Hua). After demolishing the sizeable Axe Gang contingent, the big bad boss Brother Sum (Kwok Kuen Chan) decides to teach these guys a lesson they won't live long enough to forget, hiring the meanest harp playing kung-fu killers (Kang Xi Jia and Hak On Fung) around to destroy them.

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Meanwhile Sing's still struggling to ingratiate himself into the Axe Gang's good books, eventually offered a chance at proving his worth by busting the vicious, fashion sense deprived Beast (Siu Lung Leung) out of chokey for Pig Sty Alley cleanup duty. It's not ruining anything that the trailer doesn't already ruin to tell you that Chow sees the error of his ways during the course of the piece and attempts to atone for his sins during an astonishing final act.

Chow has an enviable sense of the ridiculous. At times Kung Fu Hustle plays like an ungodly fusion of Iron Monkey, The Untouchables and a Roadrunner cartoon. Swiping themes and styles from umpteen films just as Tarantino did on Kill Bill, the main thing stopping this being a derivative of a derivative is simply the obvious enthusiasm, dedication, inspiration and love that's gone into its creation. As a result, Kung Fu Hustle is fun in a way Quentin could only dream about.

Frankly, if you can sit through this film and not be swept along by it you might as well not bother ever setting foot inside a cinema ever again. I'd also start looking on eBay for a new soul, as you must have misplaced your original issue. While it's certainly 'just' a silly kung fu movie, the scope of vision and the obvious love gone into its creation is so laudable I can't imagine anyone not appreciating it. The setting alone of a China reimagined as a Capone era Chicago is so perfectly realised as to be worthy of the cost of admission by itself.

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For once we'll have to accede to the legions who will no doubt deride this as a 'Matrix rip-off', because the final reel doesn't so much invite comparison as demand it. The main reason (apart from a one line tangential reference to Sing being 'The One') you may be reminded of those whacky Wachowski brothers output is the fight choreography, Yeung Woo Ping and his fight team providing the chopping of the sockey. What Chow understands, and what the brothers Wach do not is that it's next to impossible to invest any dramatic stock in CG stuntmen, but used as a hint of comedic extremity they can provide just enough icing to turn a nice cake into a spectacular one.

I'm somewhat annoyed with myself. Being something of a sucker for this sort of thing I'd ordered the DVD, ooh, six months ago from the time of writing. I watched it six times since then, a feat equalled by, well, probably none of the other films I've ever seen. Even though I now know this like the back of my hand, it still raises chuckles otherwise unbecoming of a bitter, cynical curmudgeon. After attempting to write this review for three weeks I'm no closer to being able to sufficiently explain exactly why I find it so damn enjoyable. Should inspiration strike me later on down the trail I might be able to remedy this situation, but in the interim all I can do is urge you to get to a cinema and watch Kung Fu Hustle. You won't regret it.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Stephen Chow
Cast list:
Kwok Kuen Chan (Brother Sum)
Stephen Chow (Sing)
Xiaogang Feng (Crocodile Gang Boss)
Dong Zhi Hua (Doughnut)
Chi Chung Lam (Sing's Sidekick)
Siu Lung Leung (The Beast)
Hsiao Liang (Axe Gang Leader)
Chiu Chi Ling (Tailor)
Leung Siu Lung (The Beast)
Yuen Qiu (Landlady)
Huang Sheng Yi (Fong)
Wah Yuen (Landlord)
Xing Yu (Coolie)