Film — Kung Fu Hustle (PG-13)

Kung Fu Hustle (PG-13)

by Amy Diaz

Heroes, of a sort, defeat villains who tend to be more brawn than brain, in the cartoonishly fast and exaggerated martial arts extravaganza Kung Fu Hustle.

When you see movies such as Hero or House of Flying Daggers, the martial arts is so beautifully choreographed, so perfectly designed — with sets and costumes calibrated to make color as much a part of the film as its score — that it seems more like ballet or a painting come to life. Kung Fu Hustle is the opposite of this. It integrates the enormous skill of martial arts with the slapstick of a Three Stooges movie. Gone are the wire-dancing robed fighters of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The action here is big, loud, campy and spring-loaded with energy. The tricks here lack the grace of the wire but gain the Looney Toons-like elasticity of computer-generated effects. 

The result is not something less but a whole new brand of kung fu fun.

The story, to the extent there is one, follows the residents of Pig Alley during some pre-communist period in Shanghai’s past. Landlord (Yuen Wah) and Landlady (Yuen Qiu) are the owners of what amounts to a slum-filled neighborhood. A ratty place to live, Pig Alley does have the benefit of being too poor to incite the notice of the Axe Gang — a gang of suit-wearing, axe-wielding mobsters who control any part of town where citizens have at least two coins to rub together. (We meet the Axe Gang early in the movie when they have a showdown, western-style, with a much smaller gang of baddies, the leader of which wears a cowboy hat. After the Axe Gang does its hacking, the members do a little dance — axes in the air — across the dance floor of a night club. It’s a scene that seems right out of Kill Bill.)

The Axe Gang does catch on to the existence of Pig Alley when two men, Sing (Stephen Chow, the movie’s writer and director) and his friend (Lam Tze Chung), pretend to be members of the gang. They try to push around the people of Pig Alley, Pig Alley pushes back and the real Axe Gang is summoned to lay down the law. But they don’t — instead, three residents of Pig Alley prove themselves to be masters at kung fu and scare the gang away. The gang come back — this time with the second-most deadly assassins in the world — and try again. The three kung fu masters are killed but the loutish drunken Landlord and the bossy, chain-smoking Landlady are unveiled to be an even deadlier kung fu force.

Meanwhile, Sing, who decided to embark on a path of evil-doing after an early attempt at heroism left him beaten and peed on by schoolyard bullies, attempts to impress the Axe Gang in hopes of one day truly becoming a member.

Actually, that is just the bare bones of the plot, which is far zanier and eventually expands to include an almost-Christ-like resurrection of a character shown to be the conduit of the Buddha. But never mind all that — Kung Fu Hustle is all about the kicking, the chopping and the constant body slamming. It’s a movie so packed with action that every moment seems to bounce and hum with electricity. The computer-generated effects here are as extravagant and ridiculous as the movie — no attempt has been made to make them look real; we simply see them for what they are: one character flattening another’s toes; another one creating a face print into metal. There’s nothing real about it and so the movie feels completely genuine — like a too-big stone that, all glittery and sparkles, just screams that it’s cubic zircona.

The fakeness, the exaggeration are what make Kung Fu Hustle such a treat. Big music, big fights, big rubber-faced characters create a movie that’s nothing but a big gooey treat.

- Amy Diaz

2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH