“No more soccer!” declares small-time thug Sing (writer-director-star Stephen Chow) as he stomps on a child’s ball. In the context of Kung Fu Hustle, it’s a pathetic attempt by Sing to make himself look tough. The larger signal, however, is to followers of Chow’s work — it’s a direct reference to his last international hit, 2001’s Shaolin Soccer, and a declaration that this new film will blow the previous one away. It does.
In fairness, Shaolin Soccer had a few hurdles in its route to U.S. theaters. Miramax, which regularly demonstrates to the point of caricature that it doesn’t know how to market martial-arts movies, dubbed and re-edited the film, briefly renamed it Kung Fu Soccer, toured it on the festival circuit, then changed its mind, went back to the subtitles and restored some (but not all) of the trimmed footage. Approximately two years later, it finally came out.
Sony Classics, which brought Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stateside, knows better and has delivered Kung Fu Hustle uncut and undubbed, even though trimming it might have substantially broadened its audience by changing the rating from R to PG-13.
The story begins with an act of brutality and an elaborate tracking shot in which a gang lord with particularly hideous teeth runs roughshod through a police station. As soon as he steps outside, however, things get weird. A well-dressed gang of ax-wielding gentlemen in top hats struts down the deserted streets. Stylized violence ensues, after which the dapper fellows demand that the cops clean up their mess. The leader of the gang is Brother Sum (Chan Kwok Kwan, also of Shaolin Soccer), whose goatee and eyeliner make him look like an Asian version of guitarist Dave Navarro.
It’s prerevolutionary China, and the gangs run everything. The only parts of the city safe from organized crime are the slums, where there’s no profit to be had. Particularly uninteresting is Pig Sty Alley, which is presided over by a shrieking, chain-smoking landlady (Yuen Qiu, The Man With the Golden Gun) and her drunken, lecherous husband (Yuen Wah, a former stunt double for, and onscreen opponent of, Bruce Lee).
Into this alley comes Sing, along with his overweight and unnamed sidekick (Lam Tze Chung). Because of a childhood humiliation, Sing has determined that good guys never win; he wants to be a villain. He pretends to be a member of the Ax Gang and inadvertently draws the real crooks into his small-time hustles.
The story matters little — it’s mostly an excuse to set up a series of elaborate fights, choreographed by the great Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger) and Sammo Hung, that aren’t restricted by laws of physics or reality. The inspiration appears to be equal parts Looney Tunes and Street Fighter II. Which is why the R rating is a shame — kids would love most of the fights, which are too cartoony to copy.
Two scenes may account for the R rating. In one, a young Sing is repeatedly urinated on by bullies. In another, the camera lingers on a child with a really gross runny nose. Neither should stop you from enjoying the rest of the flick.