Cinematic flamboyance takes precedence over narrative in “Kung Fu Hustle.” As a succession of extravagant set-pieces, Stephen Chow’s Hong Kong follow-up to his delicious “Shanghai Soccer” is a remarkable, eye-popping accomplishment. Unfortunately, as a story it’s a jumble–a collection of episodes that seem rather randomly cobbled together rather than organized into a coherent whole. It’s also an emotionally parched piece, lacking a single character in whom one might place the slightest emotional investment. As an exercise in craftsmanship it’s certainly a success, but in the end it offers lots of sound and fury but not a great deal else.
Set apparently in the 1930s, the picture begins as a semi-violent, semi-cartoonish gangster tale-cum-music as the boss of one gang is extravagantly dispatched by the phalanxes of another, the elegantly attired (and hatchet-wielding) Axe Gang. It then switches to a quasi-farcical slum called Pig Sty Alley, presided over by a harridan landlady (Yuen Qiu) and her browbeaten husband (Yuen Wah), where an Axe-gang wannabe named Sing (Chow) shows up with his chubby pal (Lam Tze-chung) demanding respect from the locals. His clumsy actions lead to the intervention of the real gang, who, in a spectacular sequence, are routed by three martial arts masters living incognito in the slum. The Axe Gang take revenge on the trio by bringing in two aged assassins who conjure up waves of deadly energy from their musical instruments, but the murderous duo are in turn confronted by none other than the landlady and her husband, who turn out to be even greater martial artists, living in not-so-quiet retirement. But the Axe Gang leaders are not to be denied. They recruit Sing, who–as flashbacks repeatedly show us, unsuccessfully attempted as a boy to use kung-fu to rescue a mute girl from bullies and has recently met her again–to spring the world’s most lethal fighter, The Beast (Leung Siu-lung) from jail to settle their scores. He does so, but when The Beast confronts the newly-buffed landlady and landlord, Sing is transformed into a white-robed master himself–The Chosen One, not unlike Neo of “The Matrix”–and engages in a final battle against him in which he literally rises to the challenge.
Almost every individual sequence in this farrago of misadventures is quite spectacular–the business involving those two musician-assassins is pretty awesome, and the big closing confrontation is certainly large-scaled–but over the long haul they become surprisingly tedious, because it becomes increasingly apparent that in the absence of any emotional content, absolutely nothing depends on them. They remain simple exercises in physical dexterity and special effects, and though you can’t help but be impressed by them on the level of craftsmanship alone (and by reason of their tongue-in-cheek references to everything from Hong Kong classics to Looney Tunes cartoons), they don’t have much magic. For a film in which the leaps are so high, “Kung Fu Hustle” is oddly earthbound.
Nor do any of the characters come alive. Chow, who was so engaging and likable in “Soccer,” is bland here, but in two distinct ways: in the first part of the picture, when Sing acts the tough, he’s a scowling, unpleasant bore, and in the last reel, when he turns into a hero, he’s so impassive that he might as well be a limber mannequin (which is probably what’s actually involved in the more improbable moments). Wah, and especially Qiu, certainly make an impression, but in a deliberately grotesque fashion, like exaggerated animated figures; the same is true, though to a somewhat lesser degree, of most of the secondary cast, especially Siu-lung and Tze-chung. As for Chow’s direction, it’s undeniably skillful on its rather detached terms, especially in the action sequences (where he had the aid of action choreographers Yuen Wo-ping and Sammo Hung); but he and editor Angie Lam don’t succeed in blending the disparate elements together into a satisfying whole. But Oliver Wong’s production design, Second Chan’s art direction, Shirley Chan’s costumes and Poon Hang-seng’s colorful widescreen photography give everything a fine surface sheen.
“Kung Fu Hustle” is good-looking, and if a lot of exuberant chop-socky action is enough for you, it will provide that in expertly-executed form. But it’s a rather empty exercise, and like that old saw about Chinese food, though it might satisfy you while you’re watching it, you’ll probably be hungry for something more substantial as soon as it’s over.