`Hustle' is sure-footed spoof


April 22, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Kung Fu Hustle is to House of Flying Daggers what Blazing Saddles is to Unforgiven. It's a hepped-up burlesque of martial-arts movies that puts audiences in a slap-happy frame of mind. The less you know about it going in, the more fun you're apt to have. It even helps if you don't recognize the director-star, Stephen Chow, who plays a sad-sack ne'er-do-well named Sing.

The plot works like Chinese boxes in reverse: every small piece of action opens up into a bigger one. It's set in an urban Asian neverland that owes a lot to Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s and '40s. But its spoofs transcend period - the hatchet-wielding Axe Gang resembles Daniel Day-Lewis' wild bunch in Gangs of New York, even when its members celebrate victory with a dance straight out of Saturday Night Fever.

Sing hopes to join the Axe Gang. But in the course of a stunning transformation he becomes the defender of the shop managers and slum-dwellers in scrappy Pig Sty Alley against the Axe Gang's powerful, wily extortionists. Kung Fu Hustle keeps reminding you of nonsense verse or nursery rhymes: instead of a butcher, a baker and a candlestick-maker, the Alley's first line of defense includes a butcher, a tailor and a laborer. (The movie is at its most delightful when characters exploit the goods at hand and turn, say, common doweling into lethal weapons.)

With arcane nomenclature that smacks of juicy pulp fiction (each fighter boasts a different style - Sing's is "Buddha Palm Kung Fu"), and wacky animation as well as virtuoso Hong Kong choreography and wire-work, Kung Fu Hustle thrives on excess. Even Pig Sty Alley's smarmy lothario of a landlord and his harridan wife boast hidden powers, such as her mastery of "The Lion's Roar" - a huff and a puff that can blow everything down.

"That fat lady can really sing," muses Sing. But when the fat lady sings in this movie the game has just begun. Kung Fu Hustle is a silly symphony of smackdown effects.

Kung Fu Hustle

Starring Stephen Chow

Directed by Stephen Chow

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Rated R

Time 95 minutes

Sun Score ***

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