Easily the most exhilarating pure kung fu movie in years, Kung Fu Hustle out-beauties Hero, outpaces either Kill Bill film in close-contact adrenaline and out-homages director Quentin Tarantino so much that he should bow in reference reverence to Hustle filmmaker Stephen Chow.
Chow (who also stars) already should be the next big American crossover star from China. Instead, Miramax botched last year’s stateside release of his 2001 film, Shaolin Soccer, with notorious half-hour cuts and poorly overdubbed dialogue. (In fairness to Miramax, the original cut with subtitles is available on their DVD, a must-see for fans of both kung fu and sports tales).
Kung Fu Hustle, released by Sony Pictures Classics, subsists on energy alone, and its shared theme with Shaolin (tapping true potential can rejuvenate a life stuck in muck) doesn’t ring as sweetly.
This is, after all, a movie that references Kill Bill, Batman, Gangs of New York and the works of Sam Peckinpah and Buster Keaton in the first 15 minutes, so parental grief, patchy romance and chintzy synthesizer love themes don’t mesh as well with the stylization.
But martial arts this breathtaking and infectiously silly haven’t graced U.S. screens since Jackie Chan’s 1996 breakthrough with Rumble in the Bronx.
It’s no matter that the plot is less a coherent story than it is a series of stupendous battles. Chow stars as Sing (his name for many movies, a la Chan’s use of Jackie as a character), a ragamuffin in 1940s Shanghai who feels the path to success is to be a bad guy in the Axe Gang.
Fatally accurate with their namesake weapon and snazzy in their style (think Kill Bill’s Crazy 88 with top hats), the Axe Gang is feared on every street in Shanghai except for Pig Sty Alley.
A shantytown run by a lecherous landlord (Wah Yuen) and loud landlady (Qiu Yuen), Pig Sty Alley holds no racketeering interest for the Axes, so they leave it be until Sing comes to the alley.
His impersonation there of an Axe Gang member leads to a turf war between the gang and the people of Pig Sty Alley. And while the gang enlists kung fu master The Beast (Siu Lung Leung, whose bloodlust would be right at home in Sin City), the landlord and landlady have strategies of their own, as does Sing.
Kung Fu Hustle is easy to marvel at both for its crackerjack comedy and its violent-ballet battles.
The film is peppered with humor from physical bits (Sing and the landlady becoming human Road Runners in a Looney Tunes-style chase) to sight gags (the Beast’s ironic appearance alone draws belly laughs) and self-spoofing (Chow references The Shining not for any narrative significance, but because he has a long hallway and the sheer inclination to do it).
But the movie also presents cooler fusions of mysticism, music, mood and movement than any such movie since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A face-off between unexpected heroes of Pig Sty Alley and supernaturally aided assassins delivers a roundhouse to the pretentious predictability of Hero. And the epic Matrix Revolutions-style conclusion pokes fun at that film’s philosophy while delivering a heavens-shaking showdown that’s every bit as exciting.
The mentality of genre-based grab bagging doesn’t always work. But Chow so giddily uses his tools to make mind-blowing fun that the last thing Kung Fu Hustle feels like is any sort of con job.