In 1940s Shanghai, various gangs fight for control of the city. The most ruthless is the Axe Gang, who have their eyes set on the only part of town yet to be taken over, a slum district that was previously considered too poor to bother with. Meanwhile a young hustler called Sing is desperate to make a living as a bad guy, and pretends to be in the Axe Gang to gain money and respect.
Actor/writer/director Stephen Chow has become one of Hong Kong's biggest stars with the success of hyper-realistic comedies like God of Cookery and Shaolin Soccer, and Kung Fu Hustle is his most extravagant film to date. Those who object to CGI-assisted fight sequences are advised to stay away – Chow frequently fills the screen with computer-aided trickery, but his use of such modern techniques is consistently inventive and funny.
Although Chow is technically the star, he is fact off-screen for half the film. Much of the action takes place in the slum district that the Axe Gang decide to take over, an area owned by the fearsome Landlady and her long-suffering husband, played with delicious comic fervour by Yuen Qiu and kung fu veteran Yuen Wah. The Landlady is an overweight, chain-smoking tyrant who spends her days yelling at her tenants for their overdue rent and beating up her poor husband. However, the couple have a great secret – they are in fact incredible martial artists who have long since sworn off using their powers; even when the gang is theatening their residents, they leave it to a trio of also-gifted tradesmen to overcome the bad guys. But eventually they are forced to revive their fighting careers when the gang spring the deadly killer known as 'The Beast' from an asylum.
Chow and action co-ordinator Yuen Woo-ping orchestrate some thrilling fight sequences around the Axe Gang and the beleaguered residents of the slum. Woo-ping tops his famous scene in The Matrix Reloaded in which Keanu Reeves takes on a hundred Agent Smith clones, by having dozens of black-suited gangsters slugging it out with the three tradesmen in a series of brilliantly intercut fights, each good guy with his own specialised method of combat. And even better is the scene in which the Axe Gang dispatch a pair of master assassins to kill the Landlady and Landlord; these killers double as musicians, and every twang of their instrument sends deadly spectral swords flying through the air.
Chow plays Sing, and fills the traditional Jackie Chan/Sammo Hung role as the bungling outsider who becomes embroiled in a situation he's ill-equipped to deal with. An unpleasant childhood experience made Sing turn his back on trying to help people; he and his tubby sidekick are now eager to become members of the Axe Gang, but their inept criminal activities inevitably leave them hurt or humiliated. There's also a sappy love story involving a mute girl from Sing's past – but I guess this wouldn't be a Hong Kong kung fu flick without a bit of heavy-handed melodrama.
At its best, Kung Fu Hustle resembles a martial arts movie as directed by Tim Burton or the Coen brothers, with ultra-stylised widescreen photography and the macabre, playful feel of Raymond Wong's sweeping score. There's bizarre musical interludes – the gangsters perform a shuffling dance routine during the opening credits – and moments that are pure Looney Tunes, such as when the Landlady chases Sing through the streets and their legs spin around beneath them, or the way faces and limbs cartoonishly twist as they are punched and kicked during the fight scenes.
For three-quarters of the film, Chow maintains a terrific balance between the spectacle and the story. Unfortunately he does allow the effects to overwhelm the climax, as Sing himself is reborn as an amazing fighter and enters into an epic final battle with The Beast. Presumably Chow wanted to get in on the action, but this late plot development makes no sense, and while the wholesale destruction that this confrontation unleashes is visually stunning it's a shame the movie doesn't close on a less bombastic note. Luckily, it's not enough of a misstep to wipe the smile from your face. Very silly, and very entertaining.
Chinese actor and director and one of the biggest stars of Hong Kong cinema. Chow began as a TV presenter and actor, before graduating to roles on the big screen in the early 1990s in films such as My Hero and Curry and Pepper. Chow's first movie as a director was 1994's Love on Delivery, an action comedy that showcased the madcap, cartoonish style Chow would develop over his subsequent films.
The likes of God of Cookery and the Hong Kong movie spoof King of Comedy were massive local successes, but it was 2001's Shaolin Soccer that finally brought Chow success in the international market. Chow's martial arts spectacular Kung Fu Hustle became the biggest grossing domestic film ever in Hong Kong when it opened in late 2004.