Trouble erupts in a circa-1940s Shanghai slum when the much-feared but nattily attired Axe Gang declares war on the denizens of Pig Sty Alley. Fists and laundry fly; brains and ass cracks are exposed; the dimensions of space and time are thwarted; and there's an exhilarating dance number ripped straight from West Side Story.
Kung Fu Hustle ain't your daddy's kung-fu film; this one's Stephen Chow's, and America is about to get an eyeful of his anarchic filmmaking that has kept Hong Kong audiences in stitches and awe for more than a decade. Last year, Chow had a cult hit here with Shaolin Soccer, a gloriously silly story of Buddhist-inspired footballers with superhuman powers.
Chow fires up even more flying-foot pyrotechnics here. Hustle's thin plot is just sturdy enough to support plenty of jokes, fights and action sequences, all of which toggle crazily between homage and send-up. Real kung-fu action is ramped up with special effects (some blows send victims hundreds of feet in the air); other scenes might have been plucked from the Looney Tunes archive, such as when the feet of a fleeing character turn into cartoon wheel-blurs. And then there's Chow's patented chop-socky surrealism, as when a villain plucks deadly notes of sound from the strings of an ancient instrument.
Many of the film's kung-fu masters, including those who lurk in Pig Sty Alley disguised as worthless middle-aged layabouts, are played by Hong Kong action stars of the 1970s; you'll not soon forget the Landlady (Yuen Qiu), who riffs on every shrieking fishwife cliché ... before kicking some serious ass. Chow, no martial-arts slouch himself, plays a young wannabe warrior who becomes embroiled in the Pig Sty battle.
Make no mistake, Hustle bears little relation to the recent crop of reverent, gravity-defying martial-arts pieces such as Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: There's plenty of sophomoric humor, gleeful gore and thudding ultra-violence. Chow might have loaded too much in the mayhem wagon for the average viewer -- not everything works, and the film is dizzyingly loud and chaotic throughout. But if you believe that a good kung-fu kick should leave a noticeable dent in an opponent's body, you'll be well served.
The film's snappy title is elusive until the final reel, when it's revealed to be a joke that makes a perfect crazy sense. Just like Chow's perfectly crazy joke of a kung-fu action movie. In Cantonese and Mandarin, with subtitles.