- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

“Kung Fu Hustle” shows us what would happen if Bugs Bunny ever met Jackie Chan.

“Hustle,” from the bottomless imagination of Stephen Chow (“Shaolin Soccer”), melds the traditional Asian action movie with a Looney Tunes short.

The results, particularly in the early going, astound.

But that’s not all, folks.

Mr. Chow, who wrote, directed and plays the antihero here, can’t rein in his own ingenuity. He gorges on his pop culture influences — everyone from Tex Avery to Quentin Tarantino deserves at least a thank-you note — when he should be shoring up a narrative framework that’s about to collapse.

Life in Pig Sty Alley, the pre-industrial Shanghai where “Kung Fu Hustle” is set, stinks. But it gets much worse when a key figure in the notorious Ax Gang meets hisMaker during a detour down the Alley. Now, the Ax’s leader (Chan Kwok Kwan) declares war on the poor Alley folk, whose initial protector is a nightmare of rage under omnipresent hair curlers called the Landlady (former Bond girl Yuen Qiu).

It’s up to a trio of retired martial arts experts to defend the turf, including a mincing Tailor (Chiu Chi Ling) whose antics would be protested by special interest groups had this been a domestic production.

The community’s fate doesn’t matter at first to Sing (Mr. Chow), a vagrant who oh, so desperately wants to join the Ax Gang and help with the mayhem. Along with a pudgy pal emblazoned with tattoo axes on his chest, Sing keeps trying to win the gang’s approval with comically sour results.

Soon, he realizes why his efforts are falling so flat. He’s destined to be the hero of this piece.

“Kung Fu Hustle” opens with a pair of stunning sequences which marry humor and horror with elan.

From there, it’s a slow, steady degeneration, as Mr. Chow hustles his players through a series of increasingly cartoonish set pieces.

It’s all done with great style and humor, but like the smorgasbord of violence in Mr. Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” after a while the viewer wants to cry “Uncle!” and rest his or her eyes.

No can do here, as Mr. Chow hammers away at our attention spans, never realizing he’s losing the very audience he’s desperate to impress.

Mr. Chow’s attempts at a Chaplin-esque love subplot with a deaf flower girl gains no traction, nor does the Road Runner-esque chase mid-film involving the Landlady.

“Kung Fu Hustle” is never dull, not for a minute, but its spectacular imagery might have coalesced into a comic epic for our time had Mr. Chow diverted some of his energy to his storytelling.

**1/2

WHAT: “Kung Fu Hustle”

RATING: R (Strong violence and occasional profanity)

CREDITS: Written, directed and co-produced by Stephen Chow. In Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com/kungfuhustle/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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