Sing (Stephen Chow) and his buddy (Chi Chung Lam, "Shaolin Soccer") are two bumbling drifters roaming the Chinese countryside impersonating members of the feared Axe Gang for respect and handouts. When he starts trouble in a small village, Sing inadvertently triggers the arrival of the real Axe Gang. The gang sets out to take control of the village with their usual brutal methods, but instead of easy victory, they find Kung-Fu masters hidden amongst the population. During the fierce battle that follows, Sing has no choice but to take sides.
Writer/director/star Stephen Chow ("God of Cookery") is one of cinema's greatest comedic minds. His love of slapstick, absurdity, and violence is unrivaled in the current film market, and he finally broke through to the global audience with his last film, 2001's "Shaolin Soccer." While the distribution of "Soccer" was mutilated by Miramax Films in America (they didn't understand what they had), the picture still showcased Chow's crack comic timing and innovative filmmaking instincts.
"Kung-Fu Hustle" (IMDb listing) is the dreaded follow-up. How can Chow match the anarchic style and pizzazz of "Soccer?" Unfortunately, Chow piles on the special effects in an effort to outdo his previous efforts while covering the thinness of this script. "Hustle" is a cornucopia of eye candy, with most of it centering around the super powers of the martial art combatants. It works conceptually, but in execution the visuals get to be a big headache, with Chow never quite giving up on the idea that more is more. Of course, what is presented, including deadly stringed instruments, intricate, bone-cracking pratfalls, and general flying around, is performed with glee by Chow and his cast. Chow even dips into the Looney Tunes archives for an extended cartoonish chase sequence that would leave the Road Runner breathless. It's hard to deny Chow his vision, but "Hustle" eventually becomes monotonous in its quest to keep outdoing itself.
When the F/X gang takes a rare break and "Hustle" is allowed to breathe, Chow and his clowning give the film much needed comic relief. Chow loves to straddle the line between Charlie Chaplin and Sam Peckinpah, with every comedic beat punctuated with a burst of ultraviolence (never mean-spirited). The best sequence in "Hustle" is a moment where Sing is stabbed repeatedly with knives while trying to start a fight, eventually finding himself covered in snakes for his trouble. It's these simple ideas that resound the loudest in "Hustle," never the overtly choreographed fights or the blistering visual effects. Chow is at his best when it's just him to contend with.
Filmfodder Grade: B-