Kung-Fu Hustle (China/Hong Kong, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Kung Fu Hustle is an action/comedy designed with lovers of the '60s and '70s Shaw Brothers' movies in mind. It's an homage to a genre that, despite being regarded as campy by about 95% of the movie-going populace, has nevertheless captured the hearts and minds of thousands of loyalists. Stephen Chow, Kung Fu Hustle's director/writer/producer/star, is one such person. His love of those old movies is evident in every frame this picture. Fans of "traditional" kung fu cinema will think they have died and gone to heaven.

But what about the average viewer, whose lone experience with martial arts may have been a flirtation with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the Westernized The Matrix? One of the great strengths of Kung Fu Hustle is that you don't have to be a fan to enjoy it. Chow's endeavor stands well enough on its own as a comedy and an action film. Sure, a lot of the in-jokes will be missed, but there are still plenty of laughs to be had and the action sequences have a kinetic energy that doesn't demand anything in the way of previous knowledge or experience. Kung Fu Hustle is infectious.

The film transpires in 1930s Shanghai, where the Axe Gang reigns supreme. The only parts of the city the Axes have ignored are the underprivileged sections - there's no profit in poverty. Thus, when Sing (Chow) arrives in Pigsty Alley, he can pretend to be a member of the Axe Gang without fear of running afoul of the real bad guys - or so he thinks. His impersonation doesn't work well, since no one is intimidated by him. Then, when some real Axe Gang members arrive, he finds himself in an awkward position. We soon learn, however, that Pigsty Alley is home to more than one kung fu master living incognito. And, when the Axe Gang brings violence to this little corner of Shanghai, the residents are more than capable of fighting back.

Like fellow Hong Kong star/filmmaker Jackie Chan, Chow has a deft touch when it comes to mixing action and comedy. The balance, while not perfect, is strong enough to keep each aspect from overwhelming the other. The film includes several heart stopping battles and sequences when it's virtually impossible not to laugh aloud. Because there's a strong element of parody in the way Kung Fu Hustle has been developed, it has a cartoonish feel. But, for this kind of film, that's not really a drawback. (There are times, however, when CGI, which is becoming the bane of many modern filmmakers, is overused.)

The lead actor is Chow, whose box office drawing power in Asia is surpassed only by that of Jackie Chan. For Kung Fu Hustle, Chow has assembled an eclectic group of supporting players, one of whom deserves to be singled out. Yuen Wah, who plays a kung fu master masquerading as a meek landlord, worked at one time as Bruce Lee's stunt double, and was a respected action choreographer. His presence in this film represents one of many Valentines Chow offers to genre aficionados.

Kung Fu Hustle is designed for an international audience, so it should come as no surprise that there numerous references will leap off the screen to an average American movie-goer (including nods to The Shining, The Untouchables, Gangs of New York, and The Matrix, amongst others). Chow's recent unpleasant experience with a major North American distributor has not soured him on the marketplace - only made him sign with a different distributor. (Chow's Shaolin Soccer was mishandled and mismarketed by Miramax, damning the giddy, electric action/comedy to an almost non-existent theatrical run followed by an unpublicized DVD dump.) Kung Fu Hustle should get a chance in a respectable number of theaters, and viewers will discover that the film has something to offer nearly everyone, whether they are a novice or a black belt in kung fu cinema.

Kung-Fu Hustle (China/Hong Kong, 2004)

Director: Stephen Chow
Cast: Stephen Chow, Yuen Wah, Yuen Qui, Leung Siu Lung, Shengyi Huang
Screenplay: Stephen Chow, Tsang Kan Cheong, Chan Man Keung
Cinematography: Poon Hang Shang
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2005-04-08
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: English subtitled Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1