Stephen Chow, star of some 50-odd films, is a certified superstar throughout Asia. In fact, he'd probably be a bigger name here in America if Miramax hadn't completely bobbled the stateside release of his worldwide smash Shaolin Soccer. Thankfully, he's got another shot at adding America to his international fanbase with the release of his newest sensation, Kung Fu Hustle.
Hustle--the highest-grossing domestic film ever released in Hong Kong--is basically the crowning achievement of Chow's 20 or so years in the movie industry. Over that time, he's worked up a unique style of comic action in films like Fight Back to School, Sixty Million Dollar Man and God of Cookery. Whereas crosstown rival Jackie Chan gets his inspiration from classic silent comedians like Buster Keaton, Chow seems to have utilized his misspent youth absorbing old Looney Tunes cartoons. With the advent and advance of computer-generated special effects, Chow has been able to more fully envision his wild imagination on screen. Shaolin Soccer, released throughout Asia in 2001, set the stage with its hyperbolic action and comically super-powered characters. Now comes Kung Fu Hustle, a manic, over-the-top-and-back-again mix of impossible martial arts and outlandish slapstick comedy.
In the film, Chow plays Sing, a shabby con man who wanders into '40s Shanghai in hopes of joining up with the city's most rough-and-tumble criminal organization, the infamous Axe Gang. The hordes of nattily dressed Axe men sport top hats and hatchets and, when they're not chopping up their enemies, aren't above breaking into the occasional well-choreographed dance routine. (Just one of several dozen nods to Chow's movie-obsessed imagination. Be on the lookout for parodies of Fred Astaire, The Shining, The Matrix and more.)
Unfortunately, our man Sing has no measurable martial arts skill. This is amply demonstrated when he and his chubby cohort (Lam Chi Chung) wander into Shanghai's poorest ghetto--the appropriately named Pig Sty Alley--where it seems even the lowly tailor is imbued with supernatural martial arts prowess. In Chow's wacky world, even Pig Sty's curly-haired harridan of a Landlady (the priceless Yuen Qiu) is capable of busting out with some gravity-mangling kung fu. (Watch out for that Bedroom Slipper of Fury--it's a killer.)
Unable to conquer the surprisingly proficient residents of Pig Sty Alley, the evil head of the Axe Gang hires a string of nasty assassins to do the job for him. Naturally, our inept anti-hero is caught in between the warring factions. Will he be able to develop his hidden martial arts mastery in time to save the day?
Unsatisfied with the fantastical wire-fu of Jet Li (Hero), Chow imagines a cartoonish world where bodies fly through 15 or 20 walls, assassins can kill with the deadly notes of a guitar and elderly landladies can hoof it like the Road Runner speeding ahead of Wile E. Coyote.
The result of all this crazy, computer-assisted inventiveness is total, giddy fun. Kung Fu Hustle is one of the most purely entertaining films you're likely to catch all year. It made me giggle like an 8-year-old kid from start to spectacular finish. Do yourself a favor: Ditch work, fuel up on candy, catch a matinee and let Kung Fu Hustle kick you in the funny bone.