There are plenty of comic book movies out there nowadays, but this one–which actually isn’t based on a book, but captures the comic spirit better than most that are–is a delightful, if empty-headed treat. “Shaolin Soccer” is the brainchild of Stephen Chow, a Hong Kong star who’s rivaled Jackie Chan in popularity at home but whose films have never broken through on this side of the Pacific. It gives him the opportunity to be a sort of Chinese version of Buster Keaton, playing a bedraggled, impoverished Shaolin zealot, called Mighty Steel Leg for obvious reasons, who recruits the old members of his monastic class–who have all gone on to unsuccessful secular careers (and, for the most part, let themselves go physically)–to come together and form a soccer team that will use the special prowess endowed on them by their old training to defeat the champions, none too subtly named Team Evil and coached by a ruthless fellow named Hung (Patrick Tse). Their Shaolin team will be trained by Fung (Ng Mang-tat), a one-time star crippled by the crowd after he’d taken, at Hung’s encouragement, a bribe to miss a kick in a vital game–and kept on by Hung as a janitor and a joke under false promises of a future coaching job.
The dedicated, single-minded Mighty Steel Leg is a great character, and Chow plays him with just the right tone of deadpan seriousness. But happily he’s not alone. There’s a lot of fun in his original encounter with Fung, and then in the relationship he starts up haltingly with Vicky Zhao Wei, as a reticent bun baker whose horrible acne makes her preternaturally shy. Best of all, though, are his Shaolin brothers, whom he brings back, however reluctantly, to their original calling. Each has some individual facility that has to be recalled for soccer-style use.
Which leads to the wonderfully cheesy, ludicrous special effects, in which the newly-minted sportsmen fly around in the most unlikely moves and send the ball careening through space and time with ridiculous force. (Beckham never bent it like this.) At first rusty and inept, the guys recapture the old magic in a test game against a bunch of rule-breaking locals (at one memorable moment Mighty Steel Leg crawls through what’s suddenly become a battleground in a parody of a Hollywood war epic). This gives way to the actual championship series, in which the Shaolin team dispatches a variety of opponents with ludicrous ease until Team Evil arrives with powers–given them, we’re informed in an aside, by American drugs and scientific infusions of strength–at least the equal of theirs. As our heroes’ numbers dwindle and victory seems beyond their grasp, who should arrive as the unlikely savior? Would you believe a girl?
All of this is utterly silly, of course, but it’s also a good deal of fun. By mixing the absurd conventions of sports movies and their underdog-coming-from-behind cliches with the equally loony, over-the-top action of kung-fu flicks, Chow has created a hybrid that scores far more often than it misses. The musical backing by Raymond Wong adds yet another genre twist by mimicking the loner-against-the-odds tones of Ennio Morricone’s western scores to the brew (entirely appropriate, since the first part of the picture is largely a take-off on “The Seven Samurai,” remade as “The Magnificent Seven,” one of Sergio Leone’s great models), and the rest of the cast supports Chow with droll enthusiasm. The result is a good-natured send-up that should keep you smiling throughout, especially if you can appreciate how dead-on the parody often is.
The picture, which ran about thirty minutes longer in its original form, has been sliced down without much finesse for American release, and some English inserts have been added to scenes that must have been in Chinese (shop signs, notes on pieces of paper, and the like); but at least it hasn’t been dubbed. The fact that it’s subtitled might deter some members of the potential audience from going to it, but that would be a mistake. “Shaolin Soccer” is a joyous bit of nonsense, whatever your linguistic or reading skills.