In the wire-assisted wake of 2000’s Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon the foreign martial arts film has evolved, in
American eyes, at least, from cult delicacy and the inspiration
for Wu-Tang Clan album titles to art-house meditations
on love, loss, and the emotional power of monochromatic color schemes.
While Crouching Tiger proved trendsetting and genuinely
magnificent, 2002’s Hero (exported to America, at
last, in 2004), though sumptuously photographed and grandiose in
scale, tasted stale, and 2004’s House Of Flying Daggers
was insufferably redundant, at best. All three films are thematically
linked by tragedy and utilize the determined and flawless beauty
of actress Ziyi Zhang. These movies took themselves
dreadfully seriously and ruminated repetitiously on maudlin and
spoon-fed romance, heaping insincere importance upon their now-chic
audiences unwilling to sit through action for action’s sake.
Enter Kung Fu Hustle, a refreshing film altogether unconcerned
with cogitating on life’s greater sentiments, and made for
the sole purpose of allowing director Stephen Chow
to play a martial arts master like his boyhood hero, Bruce
In pre-revolutionary China gangs rule the streets, and none is
more feared than the Axe Gang. They carry axes, and also like to
dance after hacking rival ganglords to pieces and shotgunning ladies
in the back. Only the impoverished and insignificant are safe from
the lunatic wrath of Brother Sum (Chan) and his
Axe Gang. Following a failed bamboozling by smalltime hood Sing
(Chow) on the Pig Sty tenement, the Axe Gang intervenes only to
be ravaged by retired martial arts masters (Hua, Ling, Yu,
Qui, and Yuen) who reside in the slum
community. In textbook cause-and-effect fashion, Brother Sum responds
to his gang’s embarrassing rout by sending two expert killers
(Xi and On) to assassinate the
tenement’s guardians culminating in cartoonish beheadings
and the unleashing of obligatory spectral knives. Meanwhile, Sing
the unsuccessful crook embarks on a quest to discover his personal
significance while struggling to master the potent Buddhist Fist
technique, bequeathed to him in his youth by a filthy street-side
sensei. The storylines ultimately intertwine when the world’s
foremost killer, The Beast (Leung), the stringy-haired,
balding master of the widow-making Frog style, is wantonly unleashed
Kung Fu Hustle prevails precisely because it is so crass,
so dunderheaded, and so unapologetically sophomoric (while being
punctuated with delightful moments of icy, remorseless violence)
that it’s impossible not to hedonistically gulp it all down.
Chow’s decision to plant the film with a stuffed minefield’s-worth
of jokes draw more comparisons to the slapstick/screwball comedies
of the 1930s, such as Howard Hawks’ Bringing
Up Baby, than Ang Lee or Yimou Zhang’s
recent martial arts spectacles. This reviewer is even (terrifyingly)
reminded of the early Jackie Chan film Fantasy
Mission Force in terms of Kung Fu Hustle’s liberal
and welcome dearth of logic. Never before have I absorbed a picture
in which the main character is gang-urinated on as a child, simultaneously
bit on the lips by a duo of cobras, and involved in a Looney Tunes-esque
chase sequence, complete with revolving legs and long trails of
dust—in a span of 10 minutes, nonetheless. And amidst the
chaos of so much kung fu and so, so much hustling, Chow and his
co-writers and actors manage to populate their madcap world with
characters that are likable and accessible beyond reason, most notably
the incognito residents of the Pig Sty tenement. A surprising amount
of heart even beats through the insanity, as the theme of unprejudiced
friendship and the Mickey Rooney-old message of
not judging a book by its cover are deftly enforced. And I may be
going all soft as I age and all gooey as a result of my perpetual
seclusion, but I found the relationship between Sing and his mute
candy cart sweetheart (Yi)—backed by a mere three minutes
of exposition—to be more affecting than the nearly interminable
111-minute whole of House Of Flying Daggers. Not only is
that a testament to my loosening grasp on humanity in general, but
also to Chow and company’s skill in establishing and sustaining
a pleasant and wholly unpretentious moviegoing experience.
And though it is pleasant, pleasant beyond adequate praise, in
fact, Kung Fu Hustle by nature never transcends mindless
fun. Nor should it have to. In spite of several glaring instances
of 1991-quality CGI, as the film relies upon computer imagery to
an almost alarming degree, Kung Fu Hustle is a satisfying
and utterly charming work of comic escapism, a much-needed dose
of martial arts counter-programming, weaknesses included.
Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.
Itís worth a full-price ticket.
Itís worth a matinee ticket.
Wait for video rental.
Check out the video from the library, if you must.
While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...