This movie is great. I laugh every time I watch it. The action is pretty good, and so is the story, but this movie separates itself form other kung fu movies with its humour. It’s very funny and part of what makes it work is that it has a combination of different types of humour and its combined with an interesting story that allows for many funny scenes as well as action scenes to coexist in the same movie without feeling forced.
The story of Kung Fu Hustle seems simple at first but it adds nice layers of complexity that enhance the overall experience. The Axe Gang commands respect from all parts of the city. The gang is continuously taking money from all level of society with exception only of the poorest places, places such as Pig Sty Alley. Two wannabee Axe Gang members visit Pig Sty Alley trying to con a free haircut and in doing so they attract the attention of real Axe Gang members. The gang attacks the alley only to discover some of its residents are retired martial arts masters. After suffering a humiliating defeat, the Axe Gang swears revenge on the alley and all its residents. Don’t be fooled by this short description of the story, there is also plenty of secret martial arts techniques to be learnt, a young kung fu master to be discovered, romances to be rekindled and a bit of Buddhist philosophy thrown into the mix for good measure. There’s even a dash of horror. One notable shot references the elevator doors opening and releasing a flood of blood from The Shining. Oh, I also forgot humour and CGI kung fu craziness, something this movie has by the bucket loads.
I want to take the time to say yes, there is quite a bit of CGI but it’s used well. We’re not meant to “believe” the action is real. It’s used to show the viewer impossible martial arts move. It’s also used to humorous intent on several occasions.
Kung Fu Hustle creates several unique and interesting characters. The Landlady comes to mind. The director has created a funny, terrifying character that also has a surprising amount of depth. She may appear to be a terrible wife and an awful landlord but underneath that hard exterior there is a warm and caring interior. Throughout the entire movie she’s an absolute delight to watch. There are many other strange and eccentric characters and in a small handful of scene there is some very exaggerated acting. It’s odd and a tad distracting at time but it’s just part of the style of comedy being used.
Part of the style of humour can be found in the clothing of some of the characters. I particularly like how the Landlady and her husband dress before the final showdown. They look like an old cold that used to be very famous and very fashionable in their younger days but now they’re clearly spent too much time retired from modern life. Their clothes seem like it was fashionable years ago but they still wear it with such confidence and pride they can’t help but look good if still a little strange. Their body language is absolutely terrific.
Another stylistic choice works to enhance both the story and the humorous elements of the movie: the dancing. It’s funny because you don’t really expect it, more importantly though, it contributes a great deal to making the leader of the Axe Gang seem unbalanced and dangerous. The dancing produces this effect without turning him into a maniacal cackling villain from one of the lesser James Bond movies. No, this guy here, I would not want to mess with him or his gang.
There is joke in the movie where one of the guys pretending to be a member of the Axe Gang is confronted by all the people of Pig Sty. He challenges some of them to fight one on one but continues to change his mind. He picks out a wimpy looking man with glasses only to discover he’s incredibly built and looks very strong. He settles on challenging a woman and offered her the first punch. She punches him in the gut and he spits out blood. “Do you lift weights?” he asks her. “No, I raise cattle.” She responds. It’s very well timed and it’s a funny scene. It also provides us with the neat idea that by living a difficult lifestyle and working hard the poor people of Pig Sty Alley have become physically strong individuals. It also explains how some of the secretly retired martial arts masters maintain their physical form and technique.
What makes Kung Fu Hustle such a good movie is, for the most part, the humour. It’s a form of exaggerated slapstick. It’s like watching a live action cartoon. It’s not so surprising when you think about it that slapstick, a physical type of humour, works really well with a genre like kung fu. Jackie Chan’s been doing it for years but I’ve never really noticed how potent a mixture the two makes when combined together. Humour alone would not be enough to sustain a movie and Stephen Chow is aware of this and he packs as much story as he can in the movie to give it some depth and some weight. Yes, there are a lot of kung fu movie staples, nothing is really new here when looked at individually, but it’s all mixed together in such an effective way that it feels fresh and it’s definitively good. Great even, like I said at the beginning of this post. I encourage you to watch the videos I included if you haven’t do so already. If I didn’t convince you to give this movie a try or to rewatch it if you haven’t seen it in a while, I’m sure those clips will.