Kung Fu Hustle (15)

Ker-pow! Ker-plonk! Ker-ching!
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The Independent Culture

If you're after a comic-strip-style blockbuster this summer, then I can't see that there's much competition. Batman Begins, and begins, and begins, but Kung Fu Hustle begins - with a biff! bang! pow! - as it means to continue, and never lets up. In a sense, not much needs to be said about Stephen Chow's demented action comedy. You know the drill: basically, everybody is kung-fu fighting, these cats are fast as lightning; in fact it's little bit frightening, but they fight with expert timing.

If you're after a comic-strip-style blockbuster this summer, then I can't see that there's much competition. Batman Begins, and begins, and begins, but Kung Fu Hustle begins - with a biff! bang! pow! - as it means to continue, and never lets up. In a sense, not much needs to be said about Stephen Chow's demented action comedy. You know the drill: basically, everybody is kung-fu fighting, these cats are fast as lightning; in fact it's little bit frightening, but they fight with expert timing.

Currently the hottest name in Hong Kong action cinema, director-star Chow has been big in Asia since the early Nineties, but Western audiences had their first taste of his buffoonery in the football-action hybrid Shaolin Soccer. He's credited with inventing a new strain of slapstick action known as mo lei tau, meaning "nonsense". "Knockabout" isn't the word for it: if anything in the film had been remotely realistic, the dressing rooms on set would have looked like an A&E ward. The opening shot sets the tone: a slow Steadicam crawl round a police station. The camera finally comes to rest on a gold plaque proudly announcing (the sub-title explains), "Super Crime Fighters", and then comes the punchline: a cop flies through the air, crashing on the plaque like a swatted fly.

The setting is Forties Hong Kong, although we're clearly seeing as accurate an evocation of time and place as the Old West of Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles. The city is ruled by the fiendish Axe Gang - thousands of hatchet-wielding hoods in top hats. The only place free from their depredations is the run-down Pig Sty Alley, but that détente is wrecked by the blundering intrusion of Sing (Chow himself), a small-time crook who dreams of joining the Axe Gang. When the Gang finally move in on the alley, they find that all its inhabitants, including the elderly, are martial arts experts with near-supernatural prowess, who carve up their oppressors as briskly as Asterix and his villagers routed the Romans.

Enlisted by the Gang, Chow's scruffy doofus doesn't have much hope: trying to pull off an assassination, he ends up like a pin-cushion, spiked with his own knives. The violence throughout is pretty extreme, but mostly in the Tom and Jerry vein: it's strictly within the realm of the impossible, and when it's vaguely realistic, which isn't often, the only possible response is, "Ouch, dat's gotta hurt!"

Chow's brilliance is to push generically implausible action into the realm of the stratospherically surreal. We're already used to the more fanciful tendencies of Hong Kong cinema, thanks to the popularisation of gravity-defying wire-work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix. Yuen Wo Ping, the action choreographer of those films did the honours here, together with actor-director Sammo Hung (from TV's Martial Law). But Stephen Chow's special requirements far exceed the usual flouting of Newtonian laws. Characters don't just fly, but bend space, zigzagging like heat-seeking missiles or gliding elegantly like autumn leaves.

Chow uses digital trickery with nonchalant chutzpah. The single zaniest sequence has the Landlady chasing Sing, both running at motorcycle speed, legs whirling like the Roadrunner and the Coyote: meeting an oncoming car, she flies over it, he skates under it, and the chase continues. Just occasionally, Chow will pull off a sight gag with perfect deadpan calm: when two lethal harpists send killer sound waves skimming through the air, we see the shadow of a cat neatly sliced in two in mid-leap.

No doubt the film is crammed with Asian cinema in-jokes, but there are plenty of asides for the Western viewer too: nods at The Silence of the Lambs and The Shining, among others. There's even a distinct echo of Jean Renoir, in the tight-knit but quarrelsome community of Pig Sty Alley - and if you think I'm imagining this, there's a poster visible at the start, advertising a Jean Gabin film.

Chow draws his characters with vivid cartoon flourishes - the horse-faced neighbourhood belle, the weedy barber with his pants forever at half-mast, the camp old barber who's a fighting terror with curtain rings stacked on his wrists. The scene stealers are the Alley's fearsome Landlady (Yuen Qiu), a sort of demonic Peggy Mount with curlers and fag, and her louche old husband (Yuen Wah): together, they're the George and Mildred of chopsocky, especially when resplendent in Seventies disco gear. They are among several vintage action stars recalled to duty by Chow, much as Leslie Nielsen and other former disaster-movie straight men were reborn as farceurs in Airplane! and the Naked Gun films.

It's the digital japery that makes Kung Fu Hustle so breathtaking, but where we often feel short-changed by patently faked action in Hollywood effects films, Chow's use of CGI makes the action so deliriously unreal that it transcends illusion to become genuinely magical and metamorphosis-rich.

Chow pulls off a closing feat of almighty cheek, as the ne'er-do-well Sing turns out to be a natural kung fu master, and - without a shred of training - is reborn to take on legions of heavies single-handed. We know this is only possible because of the digital trickery, but we happily accept it, because it's clear that beneath the illusionism is an astonishing degree of co-ordination, filmic imagination and razor's-edge comic timing. Stephen Chow is a class act, and his idea of entertainment knocks Hollywood's into a barrel. As the song says, here comes the big boss - huh! Let's get it on.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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