Twenty years ago, Golden Leg was the most popular football star in Hong Kong, but when he took a bribe from dogsbody Hung to throw a match, there was outrage and after missing an easy goal, the crowd swamped the pitch and beat him up, crippling his famed leg. Now, Golden Leg (Man Nat Ng) is the general dogsbody for Mr Hung (Yin Tse), who owns the most important and successful team in the league: Team Evil. Golden Leg wants to start his own team, but Hung laughs this off, demeaning him so that he goes to drown his sorrows in drink. However, while wandering the streets, he spies a cleaner calling himself "Mighty Steel Leg" Sing (Stephen Chow), who tells him of the power of kung fu and how it can help in all aspects of life...
Written by its director Stephen Chow and Kan-Cheung Tsang, Shaolin Soccer was an exuberant and goofy variation on the traditional sports movie where the underdogs form a team and win out against the odds. Boasting a truly inventive line in special effects to enhance the comedy and action, the film takes a long while to get down to the footie skills, as the now ironically named Golden Leg rejects Sing's suggestion that he use kung fu to assist with his project, even though he kicks the can he has been drinking out of miles high up into the sky. We do get a fun lecture on how shaolin can be used and is not simply for fighting, but initially the plot takes its time rather than promptly cutting to the chase.
After dropping off the litter he's been collecting at the dump, Sing happens to walk past an open air restaurant specialising in sweet buns where the chef is a young woman, Mui (Vicki Zhao), with a terrible skin complaint but incredible talent in making the buns - it's as if she's using shaolin here. Sing is impressed and tries out some of the food, which is delicious, but he doesn't have enough to pay for them, so leaves his tatty trainers behind instead (but not before leading passersby in an impromptu dance number which fails to win the low-self-esteem-afflicted Mui's respect). So not only do we have a sports movie, but a romance as well, even though Mui is extremely reluctant to commit.
Eventually Golden Leg is persuaded to recruit Sing when he witnesses him seeing off a group of thugs with his skills, and so the search is on to find a team. Apparently this is simple enough as Sing asks his fellow Shaolin brothers from the old days, but they're all mostly disillusioned in dead end jobs and in no mood to join up. In spite of this, a shot at football glory is just the pick-me-up they need and soon they are in training. The predictable nature of the characters' redemption is never a setback, as they're so brightly played and written that you want to see them succeed no matter what, and the clichés, while undeniably present, are subverted by the wacky humour.
After that, the film never pauses for breath, an extravaganza of elaborate moves and over the top special effects work enlivened (as if any more enlivening was necessary) by a constant stream of daft gags. Chow is an effortlessly likeable actor, and generously gives the rest of a cast the chance to shine. Marvel at the way a match with a particularly violent team turns into a scene from a war movie, Mui's makeover at the beauty shop which ridiculously turns her into something out of Dynasty, complete with huge shoulder pads and heavy makeup, and then there's the final match with Team Evil. Here the story goes completely crazy, with the drugs-taking baddies destroying the Shaolin team with fiery footballs, and the players literally flying around the pitch. Perhaps a little too easily distracted by joke opportunities, Shaolin Soccer rustles up top entertainment in its own wild world. Music by Raymond Wong.
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.