By Vic Holtreman
Short version: A hyperkinetic, Looney Toons inspired combination of kung fu, comedy and action that will leave you alternately awestruck and laughing out loud.
On the surface, the plot of Kung Fu Hustle is pretty simple: Chinese gang terrorizes local towns except for the poorest, which offer no profit. One day they decide they want to take over the town of Pig Sty (really) but things don't turn out as they expected as they are met with resistance and defiance by the local townfolk.
I really don't want to give too much away as that would spoil it for you, and I absolutely insist that if you are at all a fan of martial arts, action, or superhero movies, you must see this film once you have the opportunity to do so.
It starts out with an interesting contrast of dramatic music and a butterfly floating by imposing cliffs, which we eventually soar above to watch them turn into the title of the film. Immediately we are taken into a police station where we hear someone being beat up. The camera pans from room to room and floor to floor as the sounds continue, with everyone standing very still. From what's been seen up to this point you won't be sure if you should be laughing or getting into "serious" mode, and Chow keeps you in this ambiguous place throughout this opening sequence. To give you an example of what I mean, the film goes directly from two characters being murdered (one by shotgun and one by axe), directly into a dance sequence performed by the Axe Gang.
I told you this was weird, but trust me, in a good way.
A couple of oddball characters show up in Pig Sty claiming to be members of the Axe Gang (Stephen Chow, Chi Chung Lam) and they end up complicating things for both the gang and the town. We are introduced to the most hysterically funny cast of characters I've seen in a long time including the flakey landlord of the town, his over the top domineering wife, a barber who can't seem to hike his pants up above his rear end (I predict a fashion trend launched right here), and a not quite macho tailor. These folks are full of surprises, and most of them are not who you expect them to be.
Chow writes and directs with such a light touch, that you can't bring yourself to hate even the meanest, most obnoxious person in this movie. The humor reminded me of early Zucker brothers and John Landis, but without the naughty bits. There were so many laugh out loud moments that I honestly lost count. Everything from slapstick physical humor to great lines delivered by the cast. Nevermind that you're reading them translated from Chinese... they're still incredibly funny.
Then there's the action... stuff that comes out of nowhere. At first I thought I was going to be treated to an old style kung fu movie without any wire work (or wire-fu as it's come to be known), but eventually the wire-fu creeps in, and then barges in big-time. The thing is, as the movie progresses and diverges more and more from reality this style fits into the big picture very easily. There is also CGI employed, usually more for the humor than for action per se. The fight scenes were directed and edited really well... quite the opposite from the way these scenes are shot in American made films. You can actually see what's going on in a fight sequence! Shots that last more than a nanosecond and with the camera actually pulled back far enough that you can see more than a close up of an elbow hitting a face.
Beyond standard martial arts action there are more special effects here than you can shake a stick at... worthy of many A-list superhero/sci-fi movies in my opinion. Along with the rest of the movie, some of these scenes will make your jaw drop and others while make you laugh out loud.
Lastly, there are riffs on so many movies here that every time I saw one I couldn't wipe the grin off my face. There were tips of the hat (ok, blatant copies) of scenes from Spiderman, The Matrix, Kill Bill, The Shining, Ghostbusters, and even Death Becomes Her (that Bruce Willis/Goldie Hawn/Meryl Streep dead wives movie).
Kung Fu Hustle is just a plain old good time at the movies with enough twists, turns, laughs and suprises to keep you smiling all the way home.