A devotee of Bruce Lee and a contemporary of Jackie Chan, writer-director-star Chow has long seen the comedic potential of such action films, and while I cannot speak to his earlier works, Kung Fu Hustle is that rare bird that feels completely fresh even while checking off its influences in almost shopping-list fashion. Attendees at a recent promotional screening were greeted with the words of film critic Roger Ebert, who said it best when he described the film as a combination of equal parts Looney Tunes, Buster Keaton and Quentin Tarantino. Chow, like Jackie Chan, is a huge fan of the physically gifted Keaton, and fills his film with little bits of visual business that keep the viewer engaged from start to finish.
That's a neat trick unto itself, considering that even Western audiences have been down this road before. Thanks to everyone from Bruce Lee and Wong Kar-Wai to Mr. Tarantino and the Crouching Tiger trend (not to mention the Matrix series), we've seen more than our fair share of ass-kicking, hand-chopping, leg-kicking, high-wire action set to the tune and tone of a morality play. What, pray tell, is left? Lots, answers Chow, who grew up in the moviehouses of his Hong Kong tenement neighborhood and has clearly lived to tell about it. It's obvious he also spent more than a few Saturdays looking at cartoons, because Kung Fu Hustle is one sight gag after another: chases are set in a gear best called 'Road Runner,' with feet and legs lost in a cyclone blur; necks bulge into a toad's round girth; feet-on-feet-stomping crimes are rewarded with bend-not break imprints; and elasticity rules the screen.
The storyline isn't that altogether new, but features more than its share of twists. The luckless Sing (Chow, taking his real-life Chinese first name) would make a great gangster if he could just channel what seems like a non-existent evil streak. He takes the notion of similar reluctant heroes to the next step in that he really, really wants to do bad; he's a good-guy master in denial. To prove himself nasty enough for the very nasty Axe Gang, he and his tubby sidekick (frequent Chow sidekick Lam Tze Man, a poor man's Silent Bob) try to bully their way through a tenement. What few people know is that the neighborhood is teeming with retired kung fu masters who really don't want to be messed with -- either by gangsters or wannabes.
This serves as one of many excuses for Chow to populate Kung Fu Hustle with countless Hong Kong cinema heroes from back in the day, most notably the scene-chewing, cigarette-smoking and decibel-level-raising Landlady (Yuen Qiu, known to most Westerners as a Bond girl in The Man With the Golden Gun). It's the Landlady who takes off on a Road Runner chase, and it's Qiu who virtually steals the movie, and it's to Stephen Chow's credit that he pays double respect by letting these crafty older veterans provide most of the laughs here. More like his idol, Bruce Lee, and unlike his hammier contemporary, Jackie Chan, Chow prefers to let his silence telegraph his emotions whether funny or brooding. For a man who's been in the business for more than two decades, Chow is content, on the verge of Western success after 2001's Shaolin Soccer, to tap into the potential of this ensemble.
So we get to see veterans such as Yuen Wah as the Landlady's husband (and who was one of Bruce Lee's stuntmen); Leung Siu Lung as The Beast, whose frustration at not finding a worthy opponent has sent him into retirement at an insane asylum. (Lung is known by many as one of the 1970s 'three dragons' along with Lee and Chan); and Funk Hak On as an assassin who's just as deadly with a harp as he is his feet.
That ensemble extends to his production crew, which includes the Yoda of martial-arts action choreographer, Yuen Wo Ping, the driving force behind everything from The Matrix to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as fellow choreographer Sammo Hung. Ping and Hung, perhaps sensing that Westerners might be growing weary of so many flights of fancy in their fight scenes, have stripped the action of its more ballet-nuanced poetry and tapped into the comedic caricatures of the Looney Tunes escapades. The result is violence that challenges the senses; audience members don't know whether to laugh or gasp at heads rolling in silhouette, simply because of its slapstick cause. Kung Fu Hustle clearly wants to take this martial-arts trend into a new frontier, and it's heartwarming to see it done with such respect for the past.