In the opening scene of “Kung Fu Hustle,” smartly dressed crooks with top hats and axes cruelly murder a rival and his crew on a stylized, neon-drenched street.
The slain mobster’s girl is told she will not be harmed, but as she walks away, she is shot in the back. Then, typical of the wildly shifting tones in this uneven yet hilarious film, the crooks do something that street gangs don’t often do in action movies — they dance.
Welcome to the world of top-grossing Hong Kong writer/director/actor Stephen Chow. Western audiences may not be as familiar with him as they are with Jackie Chan or John Woo, but Asian filmgoers flock to his pictures, making him the continent’s No. 1 box-office draw. Chow is credited with creating the “moi lei tau,” or “nonsense comedy” style, and “Kung Fu Hustle” is the second Chow movie to see a theatrical release in the States, after “Shaolin Soccer” was distributed here in 2003.
Like his previous film, “Kung Fu Hustle” has a ridiculous premise and mixes absurd slapstick with cheesy sincerity, resulting in a genre-busting good time. Chow plays Sing, a down-on-his-luck simpleton who, along with his chubby sidekick (Lam Tze Chung), aspires to be a member of the suit-and-tied Axe Gang.
Like a dim-witted Laurel and Hardy, the pair pose as gang members in an attempt to shake down the occupants of a local slum appropriately called Pig Sty Alley. When their plan goes awry, the real Axe Gang shows up and three kung fu experts are reluctantly brought out of hiding to protect the community.
Chow hilariously parodies all kinds of martial arts movie clichés, such as the familiar plot development known as the “hidden kung fu master.” No one can be sure what hidden force lies buried deep in his or her psyche, waiting to be released. Characters who seem the most unlikely to kick some serious butt will suddenly sport a legendary (and remotely silly) kung fu technique.
Although “Kung Fu Hustle” is set in pre-revolutionary China and distributed by the esteemed studio imprint Sony Pictures Classics, it would be a mistake to get any ideas about the film striving for high and mighty artistic merit. Chow is a populist, and ridiculous sight gags a la “Airplane!” or “The Naked Gun” regularly appear next to creatively lunatic kung fu action.
Renowned choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (“The Matrix,” “Kill Bill”) must have had a ball designing the fight scenes; he is let loose in Chow’s “anything-for-a-laugh” universe with no restrictions imposed by reality.
The movie’s visual stamp can be seen in the constant use of exaggerated, CGI-enhanced fighting. In one particularly Looney Tunes-like moment, the Pig Sty landlady (Yuen Qiu) gives chase to Sing at hyper-speeds like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, and their legs move so fast that they are one big blur.
Another signature of “Kung Fu Hustle” is the constant and sudden shifts in tone. Chow has no problem veering madly from corny caricature to violent beheading. Most of the time it works, but as Sing begins to develop a conscience over his criminal activity, his sad past is presented in a series of mishandled childhood flashbacks.
It is asking a bit much for an audience to accept this kind of sincerity after the anarchic carnage that has preceded it. A sappy and unnecessary love story also gets forced into the mix, but its screen time is luckily kept to a minimum.
It may not be a classic, but “Kung Fu Hustle” is a playful, unpredictable comedy, overflowing with the impishly clever personality of its maker.