I went into Kung Fu Hustle with a massive headache, one of those throb jobs that nearly debilitates you. I left, 95 minutes later, with the same relentless pain.
But -- and this is the amazing part -- during those 95 minutes, while watching Stephen Chow's exhilarating, enormously playful tribute to Hong Kong and American cinema, my headache magically disappeared.
I'm not endorsing Kung Fu Hustle as a cure for headaches -- but from its very first frame, this spirited, wildly frenetic movie occupies your mind to the point where it doesn't have time for mundane things such as pain.
A freewheeling escape into fantasy, Chow's film is by turns thrilling, awe-inspiring, uproarious (mostly uproarious) and even poignant. It was a huge hit in China, and while his last import into American cinema -- Shaolin Soccer -- barely made a dent in the public eye, Hustle seems poised to make Chow a household name in America. (Let's just hope he doesn't go the sellout way of Jackie Chan.)
Not only has Kung Fu Hustle made even the most sour critics giddy (including this one), but it got a major release. Still, it came in fifth at the box office last weekend, trailing bigger Hollywood vehicles like The Interpreter and The Amityville Horror. With any luck -- not to mention word of mouth and a growing sense of adventure from audiences -- Kung Fu Hustle will have the staying power it needs to become a monster hit statewide. To be honest, something this unique and universally accessible deserves to be seen. Kung Fu Hustle works overtime to entertain. And it deserves to make a fortune.
Though the film's roots are Chinese, Chow references an astounding number of American films, tapping everything from the slapstick of Buster Keaton and The Three Stooges to the lavish musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to vintage Warner Bros. cartoons in which characters are maimed, splattered and beaten to a pulp, only to spring back into action, virtually unharmed. There are also references to the films of Sergio Leoni (the Western motif is pervasive) and to The Matrix, with which Hustle shares a direct kinship (its elaborate and fanciful flights into the martial arts were choreographed by that trilogy's fightmaster, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo). But Hustle is also a frisky, parody-fortified homage to the classic works of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
Its literal setting is pre-Revolutionary China in the early '40s, but the movie occupies its own highly stylized world. The story pits the residents of a tenement -- Pig Sty Alley (which comes complete with a courtyard, perfect for staging massive kung fu battles) -- against China's most feared band of hoodlums. Known as "The Axe Gang," they don formal wear and sport top hats, enjoy dancing a slightly disco-ized rumba after a round of killings, and, of course, carry axes.
Turns out they're no match for the denizens of Pig Sty Alley, which is ruled by a woman known only as Landlady. Sporting hair curlers and a frumpy housecoat, cigarette perpetually dangling from her lips, she seems innocuous enough. Yet those who cross her or poke fun at her weight soon find themselves flattened when this fat lady sings.
Pig Sty Alley turns out to be a refuge for Kung Fu masters -- all of whom are trying to lead ordinary lives, including a tailor named Donut (Dong Zhi Hua), depicted in such a prancing, sissified manner he makes La Cage's Albin seem macho. But look out when this fey man dons his coat-hanger rings -- his fists fill with fury.
The masters are forced out of retirement to fight the Axes, as well as a pair of blind assassins toting a deadly musical instrument, and a virtually indestructible man known as The Beast whose special fight move -- The Frog -- is as fascinating as it is repulsive.
Chow, who directed and co-wrote Kung Fu Hustle, stars as Sing, a young scruff who longs to be a member of the Axe Gang. It doesn't take a genius to see where Sing's destiny truly lies, and there is a delicious toss-off that pokes fun at the reverential qualities that ultimately sank The Matrix trilogy. But the real fun is watching Sing get there. He eventually unleashes the fabled power of the Buddhist Palm in a glorious, gorgeously filmed sequence that brings the film's themes into sharp crystal clarity.
Chow's kitchen sink approach to moviemaking works better than it has a right to -- he even finds a way to work in a little romance for Sing. By the end of the film, with all its destruction and cartoon-derived antics, you find Chow has somehow managed to catch you by the heart, leaving you with a lump in your throat the size of a grapefruit.
Kung Fu Hustle has it all -- action that thrills beyond all measure, humor that reliably tickles, and an improbably warm, fuzzy afterglow. It's the perfect 95-minute cure for whatever ails you.