Parody has long been a way of life for Stephen Chow. His breakthrough film, the 1990 Chow Yun-Fat satire All For The Winner, made him a Hong Kong star, and becoming a writer and director as well as the lead in comedies like From Beijing With Love and The King Of Comedy made him a superstar. Chow's giddy over-the-top 2001 comedy Shaolin Soccer finally brought him to U.S. theaters, though two years of release delays blunted its American impact. But his follow-up, Kung Fu Hustle, arrives uncut, undubbed, and in a rush, mere months after its Hong Kong release, and its crowd-pleasing, action-packed brand of frenetic parody promises to spread Chow's mythos even further.
Kung Fu Hustle cycles so rapidly through characters that it's initially hard to see where it's going. As China's large and prosperous cities are overrun by the notorious Axe Gang, a collective of nattily dressed, top-hatted, hand-axe-wielding gangsters who wouldn't look out of place in The Warriors, life goes on in the tiny hamlet of Pig Sty, where a shrieking harridan (Yuen Qiu) and her glad-handing husband (Wah Yuen) are landlords to a motley group of country bumpkins. When the gang does take an interest in Pig Sty, its enforcers are quickly beaten bloody by the kung-fu masters who happen to have retired there, so sneering Axe Gang leader Kwok Kuen Chan hires his own masters to assassinate the competition. The battles escalate to preposterous degrees as more super-skilled warriors are brought into play on both sides, and the CGI bodies (and visual gags) fly fast and furious.
Chow spends less time in front of the camera than usual this time around; his gangster-wannabe character is key to the action, but still takes a back seat to the sprawling cast of kung-fu wonks who leap into the fray with attacks so potent that they turn into animated knives and skeleton-warriors in midair. The CGI effects are the real star of the show: They make the film into a live-action cartoon, with bodies bouncing into the air like popcorn and running people blurring into motion streaks, leaving dust trails behind. The humor is occasionally gross and often lowbrow—the barber who wanders around unwittingly bare-assed represents a typical sight gag—but Chow reaches for the sublime as well. When his gangsters celebrate a victory with a group dance, or his martial artists clash in a three-way free-for-all, Chow's choreography is both thrilling and stylish. And in a film where special effects erase physics and the constraints of the human body, there's absolutely no telling what will come next. Any limits would have to be imposed by Chow's imagination, which grows bigger, brighter, and more engagingly reckless every year.