If I had to reduce my reviews to capsules, here would be the entry for “Kung-Fu Hustle”: This is very possibly the funniest movie of the year, definately the funniest so far and likely tough to beat as the months go on. Get yourself into a theater and see this now.
By the time you’ve read this, you’ve probably heard a hundred times over from voices ranging from Roger Ebert to the boxoffice teller at the cineplex that “Hustle” is a martial-arts flavored fusion of Buster Keaton and Bug Bunny, an East-meets-West lovechild of the MGM Musicals and the Shaw Brothers chop-socky epics. It’s all of these and more, but now having seen it I believe that the majority of observers have overlooked the film’s true pop-cultural ancestor: Popeye.
Specifically, I mean the golden-age of Popeye cartoons made for Paramount by the great Fleischer animation studios; the typical episode of which were gleefully-insane celebrations of the maleability of the cartoon form: Popeye and Bluto endlessly engaged in apocalyptic grand-scale fisticuffs while the animators reveled both in their innability to be seriously injured and their surroundings limitless potential to be demolished in ever-more creative ways. The heroes and villian’s of writer/director/star Stephen Chow’s film indeed have the Popeye characters powers, and the world they inhabit shares not only the Fleischer animator’s fondness for elaborate property damage but also their eye for setting such antics amid affectionate renderings of the everyday world of the working poor: As Popeye and Bluto’s cartoon world was indelibly linked to a Depression-era cityscape apple carts and tenaments, Chow grounds his tale in a 1940s-looking Chinese slum.
At the same time that Jackie Chan, Jet Li and other Hong Kong action superstars were making migratory inroads to American fame, Stephen Chow was becoming a phenomenon of the Asian cinema as a wunderkind comedy star. Chinese audiences adored him, leading to an explosive rise to the top but also a dour pronouncement: Because his self-invented style of nonsense-comedy relied heavily on verbal gymnastics, he’d never translate to Western audiences. Chow’s response was to hone his proficiency with physical humor, drawing heavily on comedians of the silent era and the 70s kung-fu epics of his youth. The first film showcasing this new approach by Chow was “Shaolin Soccer,” which became the biggest domestic hit in Chinese history and a phenomenon in soccer-phile Europe only to see it’s release fumbled by Miramax in the U.S. “Hustle,” a superior film to “Soccer,” has been given a wide release by Sony and may finally be the film to make an American name for Chow.
Set in a version of 1940s (30s?) China, the film finds the land under the merciless control of a hatchet-slinging kung-fu crime syndicate appropriately dubbed The Axe Gang. Only the poor slum of Pig Sty Alley is safe from the Axe’s reign, and only because it’s too poor to be worth robbing. Sadly, this knowledge (make that any knowledge, really) is lost on wannabe gangster Sing (Chow), who tries to shake down the locals by masquerading as an Axe only to wind up wayover his head an inadvertently drawing the attentions of the REAL Axe Gang, who aim to make an example of Pig Sty Alley as to what happens when you mess with even a fake Axe. Their presence unleashes a slapstick battle-royal and the hidden secret of Pig Sty Alley: A whole crop of it’s most mild-mannered residents are actually kung-fu Supermen, old-school wandering master-figthers from the days of Shaw Brothers-school high adventure hiding out among the poor and downtrodden. Accordingly, this sets off a war between the Pig Sty masters and a succession of increasingly bizzare evil masters hired by the humiliated Axes, while Sing continues his quest for the villiany he’s so obviously unsuited for.
Slyly understanding his genre, Chow and his film are openly aware from the get-go that Sing’s innability to be a bad guy (no matter how desperately he wishes to be one) can only mean, in a kung-fu epic, that he’s destined to become a hero for the ages. He gambles, wisely I think, that the majority of the audience (and eventually EVERYONE in the film except Sing himself) will get this to be a fact from the get-go.. except of course for Sing, who at first seems clueless to the idea and later graduates to being openly hostile to it. It’s a grand credit to the film that this belligerence on the part of the hero to accept the fate we all know is coming to him transcends being a device of plot-extension and is instead presented as a crucial element of the plot and his own development. I won’t spoil how, but suffice to say it involves the mysterious character of Lolipop Girl and winds up providing a moment of romantic melodrama so earnestly-presented you won’t even feel silly at being genuinely moved by it. It’s expected, as the writer, director and star that Chow enjoys and even loves this material, but the deeper key to it all is that he believes in this material.
Chow is all over the film in all respects except for the one you’d most expect: actual screentime. His Sing is the main character, and his arc sets the tone for the rest of the movie, but in a rare display of auteur anti-egotism Chow is content to keep Chow’s story at a secondary level to the more colorful and immediately-endearing heroes up until the big climax. Sing spends the first act as an obnoxious would-be baddie, the second act as a guest-star in his own movie and only emerges as a superhero in the third and final act. Until then, he graciously cedes the stage to the cast of wacky aging kung-fu dynamos he’s assembled, and together they put forth a display of post-prime glory reclaimed thats every bit as cheer-inducing as the similar heroic reemergence in “The Incredibles.”
It would do the film’s setpeice scenes a disservice to try and describe them to you, as words simply won’t do them justice. Let me just say that special note needs to be paid to a tone-setting scene where Sing challenges all of Pig Sty to a fight… sort of, a shockingly funny scene involving knife-throwing and cobras that would do Dr.s Howard, Fine and Howard proud, and the hillarious revelation of “Toad Style” kung-fu.
The MPAA has rated the film R, mostly for violence (Chow doesn’t cut away from many of the bloody results of the Axe Gang’s mayhem, but shows the worst as black and white crimescene photos) and a few comical scenes of rear male nudity. I’m not in the business of making family-audience reccomendations for such things… but I’d say that if you’ve got kids who are looking to see this I’d say it’s at least suitable for the ten-and-up crowd in my opinion. At the very least, it has no real cursing (at least as far as the subtitles are concerned) no explicity sexual content and it’s overall message (basically “do unto others” with a Buddhist flavor) is broadly virtuous and worthwhile.
Far and away the best comedy out right now, don’t miss it.
FINAL RATING: 10/10