China, the 1940s. Blundering into rickety ghetto Pig Sty Ally, smalltime bandit Sing (Chow) attempts to blackmail the locals by posing as a member of the feared Axe Gang. When the villagers click and the Axe Gang pitch up, Sing is caught in-between a raging turf battle that reveals some unexpected martial artistry from the locals...
Ever since Crouching Tiger, when dumb chopsocky went martial arthouse, the good old-fashioned fisticuff has turned into an acceptable and polite form of entertainment. Artful. Epic. Balletic. Often preoccupied with bamboo. Still, if the likes of House Of Hero Tigers are now dinner party banter, here, at last, is one for the pub. We are, after all, talking about a movie that dubs pinball noises over its fight scenes. Balletic? It's like a bull on rollerblades.
Kung Fu Hustle has already become something of a phenomenon in Asia, punching up box-office records across the continent. That this is largely down to one man, the agonisingly multi-talented Stephen Chow, is nothing short of heroic. Writer, director, producer and star, on-screen he's the heir apparent to Jackie Chan, while behind the camera he's a hyperactive stylist, an Oriental Sam Raimi. It's heartening to see that he's also bit of a lunatic. If Hero was stupidly beautiful, this is beautifully stupid.
Chow cut his teeth on the criminally underseen Shaolin Soccer, which, along with being on-the-money dumb, used inventive CGI to liven up the superhuman footie. In the bigger budget Hustle, Chow's allowed to run riot with his preposterous visions. It's a spaghetti Western via Enter The Dragon and Tom And Jerry, where screams are like earthquakes and foot chases are clocked at Roadrunner speed. Hollywood would never allow such state of the art absurdity. It'd probably steer clear of the gallows humour, too. If the slapstick intentions are Tex Avery, the oofing punchline's more often Evil Dead. But that's the perverse buzz of Kung Fu Hustle. It's like watching a blockbuster beamed from another planet.
For all its thundering effects and flickbook edits, it is, at heart, rabidly retro, recalling the lunacy of Chinese Ghost Story and the knuckle-basics of the Shaw brothers: that is, minimum plot, maximum rumble. The elaborate, copious fight scenes, choreographed by The Matrix's Yuen Wo Ping, often beggar belief. If you don't have weird peanut dreams after watching the two old, blind assassins thrash their trowly fingernails over the strings of a homicidal harp, you were probably watching with your eyes closed. Subtle it ain't and God is it loud - half the time it's like having your head trapped between a pair of cymbals - but, really, it's one giant kick in the nuts for Hollywood.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Roadrunner? Whatever: invigorating, bombastic, out-there and very funny, Kung Fu Hustle pummels The Matrix trilogy into a puddle.