Review: Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

: Kung Fu HustleDirected by and starring Stephen Chow

Kung Fu Hustle is a clever explosion of humor and hyper-kinetic action that makes for a crazy fun time at the movies.

I had a rollicking good time at a preview screening for Kung Fu Hustle last Monday. Writer/Director/Star Stephen Chow takes the traditional martial arts film and gives it a completely original spin. It’s fast, furious, and very funny.

Many times throughout my viewing of this action comedy, I had a “Huh, what?” look of disbelief on my face…but in a good way. (Not like when I frowned my way through The Umbrellas of Cherbourg because I just could not believe what I was seeing, and couldn’t wait for it to be over!) Quirky, off-beat, odd, bizarre—whatever you want to call that quality of exuberant unexpectedness, Kung Fu Hustle has got it in spades.

I’ll give you the two sentence run-down on the plot, but it won’t help much. The story’s a bit complicated, very silly and not really the reason to see the film. The Axe Gang is the most notorious of all the street gangs. They’re ruthless, snappy dressers and when they’re not swinging their axes in combat, they raise them together in an odd dance of solidarity that would make Christopher Walken feel right at home. Chow stars as Sing, an inept thief with dreams of joining the gang.

Meanwhile, in a neighborhood called Pigsty Alley, bumbling simpletons cower under the screaming force of their Landlady, a harpy in a housedress and curlers with an omnipresent cigarette hanging out of her scowling mouth in every scene. When the Axe Gang chooses Pigsty Alley as its next target, they get more than they bargained for. It turns out Kung Fu masters can be found in the most unlikely of places. A war commences to which Sing becomes a central player, going from zero to hero by movie’s end.

Kung Fu Hustle is a clever explosion of humor and hyper-kinetic action that makes for a crazy fun time at the movies.  Clever moments and hilariously jumbled elements abound, such as a Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote style chase, and a duel between Pigsty Ally defenders and a pair of master zither players to name just two. A repeat viewing wouldn’t be out of the question to catch all the martial artistry and pop culture in-jokes sprinkled throughout.  As impressive as the intricate fight choreography is the camera work, (the opening shot wandering through the police station stands out among many,) and the 1930s gangster-style art direction, complete with flashy suits, top hats and sporty roadsters.

Character development is a bit surface level, with most players reduced to a physical trait or stereotype, and more than once the CGI effects looked a bit cheesy. Not a big deal all-in-all, especially in a cartoonesque movie such as this. (I should note that the violence stood out in greater contrast because of this cartoon quality.) Most puzzling to me was the turning point of the film, when the hero has his epiphany; it’s really unclear what’s motivating his choice. But I let it go. Quibbling with the plot would get in the way of all the fun.  [****]

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