"No more soccer!" declares small-time thug Sing (writer-director-star Stephen Chow) as he vigorously stomps on a child's ball. In the context of Kung Fu Hustle, it's a pathetic attempt by Sing to make himself look tough. The larger signal, however, is to followers of Chow's work -- it's a direct reference to his last international hit, 2001's Shaolin Soccer, and a declaration that this new film will blow the previous one away. It does.
In fairness, Shaolin Soccer had a few hurdles in its route to U.S. theaters that harmed its reception. Miramax, which regularly demonstrates to the point of caricature that it doesn't know how to market martial arts movies, dubbed and re-edited the film, briefly renamed it Kung Fu Soccer, toured it on the festival circuit, then changed its mind, going back to the subtitles and restoring some (but not all) of the trimmed footage. Approximately two years later, it finally came out.
The good people of Sony Classics, who brought Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stateside, know better, and have delivered Kung Fu Hustle uncut and undubbed, even though trimming it only slightly might have substantially broadened the audience by changing the rating from R to PG-13. (One or two things really deserve to be cut, but we'll get to that later.)
The story begins with an act of brutality and an elaborate, multistory tracking shot, in which a gang lord with particularly hideous teeth runs roughshod through a police station. As soon as he steps outside, however, things get weird, as a well-dressed gang of axe-wielding gentlemen in top hats struts down the deserted streets. Stylized violence ensues, after which the dapper fellows -- known as the Axe Gangsters -- demand that the cops come and clean up their mess. The leader of the gang is Brother Sum (Chan Kwok Kwan, also of Shaolin Soccer), whose goatee and eyeliner make him look not unlike an Asian version of Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro.
During the credits that follow, we are informed that the era is pre-revolutionary China, and the gangs run everything. The only parts of the city safe from organized crime are the slums, where there's no profit to be had. Particularly uninteresting is Pig Sty Alley, which is presided over by a shrieking, chain-smoking landlady (Yuen Qiu, The Man with the Golden Gun) and her drunken, lecherous husband (Yuen Wah, a former stunt double for, and onscreen opponent of, Bruce Lee).
Into this alley comes Sing, along with his overweight and unnamed sidekick (Lam Tze Chung). Owing to a childhood humiliation, Sing has determined that good guys never win, and thus he wants to be a villain, so he pretends to be a member of the Axe Gang. When confronted with real kung fu warriors, however, he proves ineffective and inadvertently draws the real Axe Gang into his small-time hustles.
This, in turn, draws out three kung fu masters who have been living in secret with the poor, among them a chef named Doughnut (Peking Opera star Dong Zhi Hua), who uses his skills to shape pastry, and a gay tailor (Chiu Chi Ling, Snake in Eagle's Shadow) who uses curtain rings as weapons.
Events escalate further, for reasons that really don't merit mentioning: Supernatural assassins are drawn into the picture, the landlady and her husband turn out to also be masters, and Sing releases an ultimate villain known as The Beast (Leung Siu Lung, Little Superman) from his holding cell at the "Atypical Pathology Center." The Beast is so badass that he can shoot himself in the head and catch the bullet before it enters his body.
The story matters little -- it's mostly an excuse to set up a series of elaborate fights, choreographed by the great Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger) and Sammo Hung, that aren't tied down by laws of physics or reality. Combatants can send gigantic psychic fists flying at each other, hurl waves of zombies at opponents, speed down the highway like the Roadrunner and even briefly morph into animals that represent unique martial arts styles. The inspiration appears to be equal parts Looney Tunes and Capcom video games like Street Fighter II. All the energy that was missing from the recent Mask sequel is here, and then some. Which is why it is a shame about the R rating -- most of these fights are so cartoony that there's no reasonable danger of children copying them, and they're sure to enjoy it.
But with that said, there are two scenes that briefly bring the movie down and may account for the R rating. In one, a young Sing is repeatedly urinated on by bullies. In another, the camera holds for quite a while on a child with a really gross runny nose. Neither is essential, nor should they stop you from enjoying the rest of the flick.