Miramax's over-the-top import Shaolin Soccer gleefully runs on the mock import of applying a fifteen-century old martial art to soccer. With the bold comic style of a lunatic cartoon, writer-director-star Stephen Chow (a.k.a. Stephen Chiau) at long last brings his eccentric vision to American screens. Once again, Miramax Films—which acquired the rights to Shaolin Soccer three years ago—fulfills Harvey Weinstein's long-standing policy of trimming foreign films (here by about thirty minutes) and otherwise goosing the sound and picture for American tastes. Nevertheless, not even Harvey's shaolin editing power could suppress this inventive action comedy which--though not to all tastes--is a cult movie for the ages.
Chow plays Sing, one of a group of five Shaolin brothers scattered to the winds. Daily, Sing conjures hare-brained schemes to promote the philosophy of shaolin; the mere sight of him excitedly approaching sends brother Iron Head (the hilarious Yut Fei Wong) into fearful hysterics. But a chance meeting of Sing and aspiring soccer coach "Golden Leg" Fung leads to a harmonious union. Fung and Sing form a team, comprised predominantly by the five brothers, and enter the competition of Hung (Patrick Tse), an evil contemporary of Golden Leg (Hung once coerced Golden Leg to throw a game, then turned around and crippled the golden boy; a score remains to be settled).
The plot follows the basically predictable trajectory of a Bad News Bears or a Full Monty, but the trappings elevate Shaolin Soccer to manic, unhinged heights of surreality. The solution of how to make the aptly named Team Evil worthy adversaries for the seemingly unstoppable Shaolin footballers is, at once, dead-on critical of American culture, succinct, and hysterical. Chow devises some great non sequiturs ("There must be a fusion of mind and foot!") and comic visual astonishments (check out the banana-peel gags, and rippling reality giving way to walls of fire behind each passionate shaolin practitioner).
Eye-popping digital effects wed to physical comedy for a gross of sight-gag corkers, and some of the humor ventures fearlessly into Airplane! territory, like a soccer match which morphs into a war-movie parody, then skillfully layers the joke with compounding detail. Witnessing Team Evil's improbable acrobatics, one brother asks, "How'd they do that?". Another answers, "It must be special effects," but there's certainly nothing fake about Chow's cracked genius.