In a 1940s Chinese police station, a camera darts and swerves like a trapped, startled bird as a brutal street gang beats a hapless cop senseless, sending him crashing into a sign that reads "Crimebusters." Having sufficiently terrorized the police corps, the gang saunters into the street, whereupon its leader takes one look at the deserted movie theater across the way and sneers, "Sunday afternoon and the place is deserted. Who would go into the movie business?"
The gang doesn't have long to ponder the paradox, because within moments, the vicious, top-hat-wearing Axe Gang is upon them and things get ugly fast -- albeit in a beautifully shot and stunningly choreographed way. It's a scene straight out of a dozen movies. Written and directed by Stephen Chow ("Shaolin Soccer"), one of China's best-loved actors, who also stars, "Kung Fu Hustle" is set in a nostalgically rendered Hong Kong neighborhood similar to the one in which Chow grew up. But the director takes his aesthetic cues from sources as wide-ranging as Hong Kong action films of the '70s and '80s, wink-nudge Hollywood action movies and -- thanks to the magic of CGI -- the Warner Bros.' Looney Toons oeuvre. A lively, action-packed and witty piece of globalist entertainment, "Kung Fu Hustle" winks right back, as when a badly injured character uses his last breath to recite a line from "Star Wars," startling his friend into exclaiming, "Donut! Why aren't you speaking Chinese?"
As brutal as it is ridiculous (its members follow hatchet massacres with Michael Jackson-inspired dance numbers), the Axe Gang wanders into the poor neighborhood of Pig Sty Alley on the heels of the bumbling Sing (Chow), a wannabe gangster who has stirred up more trouble than he can handle. The neighborhood's humble inhabitants aren't accustomed to violence -- they usually go about their daily business enduring nothing more painful than a playful slap or goose courtesy of the pesky Landlord (Yuen Wah) and trying to steer clear of his ferociously surly wife. But the apartment block turns out to be home to five people who are more than they seem: Donut (Dong Zhi Hua), Tailor (Chiu Chi Ling), Coolie (Xing Yu), Landlord and, of course, Landlady (Yuen Qui), a violent dervish in rollers and a housecoat and with a cigarette permanently grafted to her sneering lip, who thinks nothing of knocking Landlord out the window upon noticing a smudge of lipstick on his cheek.
The leader of the Axe Gang is hurt in the fight, precipitating a grudge match. So the gang recruits Sing to track down the Beast (Leung Siu Lung), now committed to a lunatic asylum, and the only man alive capable of exacting revenge.
For all its extreme cartoonish violence, "Kung Fu Hustle" is a surprisingly sweet and charming movie that mocks the shallow posturing of unabashed cinematic love songs to bad guys. A mediocre villain -- his total dedication to badness notwithstanding (all explained in haunting flashback) -- Sing turns out to be destined for something else entirely. A hapless buffoon stuck in adolescence until he unblocks his chi and changes his ways, Sing transforms into a one-with-everything warrior. (His unbeatable finale involves shooting into the heavens and planting one on the Buddha's kisser.) Brilliantly choreographed and shot, "Kung Fu Hustle" is often grisly, visually spectacular and unabashedly silly, sometimes all at once, but at its core it's the story of young Sing's sentimental education and the coming of age of his (surrogate) parents. Kung Fu Master knows best.
'Kung Fu Hustle'
MPAA rating: R for sequences of strong, stylized action and violence
Times guidelines: Violence includes dismemberment and flowerpots to the head
Leung Siu Lung...The Beast
Dong Zhi Hua...Donut
Chiu Chi Ling...Tailor
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Stephen Chow. Producer Chui Po Chu, Jeff Lau, Stephen Chow. Executive producers Bill Borden, David Hung. Written by Stephen Chow. Writers Tsang Kan Cheon, Chan Man Keung, Lola Huo. Director of photography Poon Hang San. Editor Angie Lam. Running time: 99 minutes. In Cantonese with English subtitles.