From Stephen Chow comes the answer to this question: Can there possibly be a kung fu film that's more irreverent or zany than "Drunken Master" and its sequel--or "Shanghai Noon," or Chow's own "Shaolin Soccer"?
In "Kung Fu Hustle," Chow does to Hong Kong martial arts films what Mel Brooks did to westerns. And just as Brooks did, he threw in some live Warner Brothers cartoon action for good measure. We're talking Beep Beep! in a big way.
Using sets so stylized, Spartan, and artificial-looking (except for the tenement village) that they suggest an alternate reality which exists somewhere between the world as we know it and the world in which Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote run with 360-degree movement of those dust-churning legs, Chow provides a perfect arena for this silliest of satires. And he begins where Brooks left off in "Blazing Saddles": with guys in top-hats and tails.
Brooks, you may recall, ended his parody of westerns by having a postmodernist moment in which we realize they're all just actors on a western set who crash through a wall and onto an adjacent set, where an ensemble of gay men are dressed in tuxedoes and top hats, dancing with canes. They clash, and that's just what happens here—throughout the entire movie.
Like the spaghetti westerns of old, where streets clear when a gang shows up on the edge of town and walks to its center, looking for trouble, the formally-dressed Axe Gang turns up en masse, ready to kill, maim, or dazzle you with dance steps at the drop of a hat. Even police clear out when a showdown seems inevitable—one of many allusions to wild westerns, '40s dance, and even "Batman." If "Drunken Master" was kung fu on booze, this is kung fu on drugs. There are playful swipes at the full range of martial arts movies, including more serious poetry-in-motion films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hero." But where previous comic martial arts films were primarily action flicks with a comedic spin, "Kung Fu Hustle" is pure comedy with a blur of action used only to get laughs, like anything else. In fact, the trailers bill it as "an all-new action comedy," with "action" describing the type of comedy. Things move so fast and flip-book furiously that the cartoon pacing dominates more than the fight sequences themselves. Need proof? If anyone steals the martial arts show, it's the cigarette-smoking, hair-in-curlers, housecoat and slipper-wearing Landlady (Qui Yuen), who kungs the living fu out of people. You don't want to mess with this tenement queen!
In westerns, you could always tell the bad guys by their black hats. In "Kung Fu Hustle," it's black teeth. The crocodile cowboy-booted and Stetson-wearing boss of the Crocodile Gang has conspicuously rotten teeth, and so does Big Brother Sum (Kwok Kuen Chan), the boss of the Axe Gang. But just when you think this is going to be another gang vs. gang film, the Axe Gang makes short work of their rivals early in the film and do a celebratory dance (parents, be warned, there's some pretty graphic violence, and the dancing makes it all the more casual). "Kung Fu Hustle" really turns out to be the saga of a street rat named Sing (director Chow) who, with his sidekick (Chi Chung Lam), yearns to be a member of the Axe Gang. Who wouldn't want to be? he muses. These guys are sharp dressers, they have money, and they get the girls. And you can't beat those signature flares that they fire off, beaming an illuminated axe in the sky (rather than Batman's famous bat symbol).
Shortly after a narrative tile proclaims, "Only in the poorest districts, which hold no interest for the gangs, can people live in peace," elements of "The Magnificent Seven" and "Three Amigos" kick in when Sing and his sidekick pose as axe gang members in order to shake down the tenement settlement of Pig Stye Alley. Only they do a terrible job of it, and end up incurring the wrath of both the townspeople and the real Axe Gang, which shows up to set things right. In the blur of comic action which follows, three kung fu masters (including an effeminate tailor who, like a super hero, seems to derive power from bracelets) take on 1000 gangsters. In the other major battle, which also employs slow-motion techniques, two musicians play lethal notes that launch from their lap-piano, while the heroes have to deflect them. There are times when you're not quite sure what's going on, things move at such a fast pace, but the sight gags and laughs keep your mind off of any disjunctions in the plot. And Yuen Wo Ping's choreography of the action is fun to watch.
Sample funny moments? A pumped-up resident interrupts a town meeting to decide what to do about the Axe Gang by saying he could be a kung fu master. SMACK! Landlord punches him and quips, "Don't think so." In another laugher, Sing talks smack and challenges someone in town to step forward, and they all do. A woman punches him, while even a small boy emerges with a buff Bruce Lee body. But in perhaps the funniest scene, the hapless Sing, who learned his bogus "Buddhist Palm kung fu" from a booklet he bought as a youth from a conniving beggar, tries to throw a knife but it hits a crossbeam and lodges in his arm. In pain, he urges his sidekick to do the job, and the sidekick pulls back and fires . . . right into the same wounded arm. There's more, but such moments are better watched than described. Suffice it to say that the comedy is broad enough and cartoon-like slapstick to compensate for any narrative muddles.
Video: "Kung Fu Hustle" is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, and mastered in High Definition. The picture quality is very good—sharp enough to capture the blur of martial arts activity and special effects. And the effects are good enough to sustain scrutiny under such conditions. The boy with the Bruce Lee body you'd swear spent years at a Gold's Gym.
Audio: The audio options are Chinese and English (dubbed) Dolby Digital 5.1, French 2.0 Dolby Digital Surround, and a 2.0 Surround commentary track. You can shift easily from one to the other using your audio key. I recommend watching in Chinese with English subtitles. French subtitles are also available, and the sound quality is the same as the video. Quite good. This was a big budget picture, and it shows.
Extras: Chow is joined on the commentary track by the actors who played the sidekick, Axe Gang leader, and Axe Gang advisor (Kai Man Tin). Together, they have a high-kicking good time of it, with plenty of laughter. In truth, though, there's not much in the way of analysis or contextualizing. As allusion-rich as the film is, there's not much in the way of discussion of influences or targets of humor. For all the apparent Brooks' homages, for example, there's no direct mention of the legendary director—though they do talk about the extended chase scene which was directly patterned after the Road Runner cartoons. As commentary tracks go, it's a fun listen (in Chinese, with English subtitles), and I recommend watching it with the dubbed version. The directors' posse commentary appears in subtitles, still, while you can hear the full spoken text of the film as you watch—something that's usually not possible with commentary tracks.
Of the extras, the best is a loose but intelligent interview with Chow conducted by Ric Meyers. Meyers knows his stuff and knows the right questions to get Chow talking, while having an ease of manner that makes the interview more of a conversation we're eavesdropping than the kind of formal interrogation that's often the case. There's also a behind-the-scenes TV special that's worth watching, as is a short blooper real that's fascinating because it's the only document on this disc that records some of the work with ropes. Rounding out the extras are two unspectacular deleted scenes and a poster gallery.
Bottom Line: "Kung Fu Hustle" won't be everyone's cup of Chai. Some will be unsettled by the violence or the odd insertion of dance and cartoon elements. But "Kung Fu Hustle" was the highest grossing film in the history of Hong Kong cinema, and it's easy to see why. It's flat-out crazy, and anyone who sees it is apt to tell their friends about it and perpetuate a buzz the size of which "Drunken Master" couldn't attain after a month of marathon drinking. It's the kind of film you turn to when you want to laugh out loud. Lol.