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Gong fu (Kung Fu Hustle)

(2005) *** 1/2 R
99 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Stephen Chow. Cast: Stephen Chow, Yuen Wah, Leung Siu-Lung, Dong Zhi Hua, Chiu Chi Ling.

I've always been a little skeptical of "homage," and never more so than in the post-Tarantino era of cinema, when "homage" more commonly means rip-off. In the waning days of Mel Brooks and Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, cinematic parody has been reduced to scatological cataloguing. But auteur kng-fu filmmaker Stephen Chow picked himself up from the Miramaxing of Shaolin Soccer and sent us Kung Fu Hustle, a bubbling stew of the films of his lifetime.

As a straight-ahead martial arts film, Kung Fu Hustle might have been a pointlessly retro exercise—an homage that was simply a rip-off—but the hyperbolic escalation of references to Hong Kong action films and Western cinema (in both senses of the phrase) makes Kung Fu Hustle a skillful parody of all films martial arts, without sacrificing kung-fu street cred: choreography is credited to Yuen Wo Ping (whose credits include the Drunken Master films, Once Upon a Time in China films, The Matrix films, and Kill Bill) and frequent Jackie Chan collaborator Sammo Hung.

Perhaps by it very nature as a martial arts film, Chow hides in plain sight that Kung Fu Hustle is also a satire of historical struggle between the underclass and the criminal class. The film is set mostly in Pig Sty Alley, a community so poor that it's not worth noticing by the dreaded Axe Gang. When wannabe-Axe Gangster Sing (Chow) and "Sing's Sidekick" (Chi Chung Lam) strut through Pig Sty Alley claiming to be Axe Gangsters, they raise the ire of the genuine articles. When a full-throttle streetfight breaks out, Sing becomes responsible for drawing the Alley's poor denizens into a war of resentment with the Axe Gang.

Chow uses archetypes that Chinese audiences will recognize from American films—like the character of Landlady (veteran Qiu Yuen, paired with "Landlord" Wah Yuen), a belligerent harridan in curlers, nightie, and ever-drooping cigarette—and archetypes that American audiences will recognize from martial-arts films, like the loudmouth Landlady's hot-air specialty: "the Lion's Roar." Plenty of arcane, magical kung-fu weaponry roars to life in the action scenes; as in Shaolin Soccer, Chow gleefully indulges digital effects as he careens crazily from set-piece to set-piece (nodding to his previous international hit, Chow deflates a kid's soccer ball on his way into town, spitting, "No more soccer!").

The Axe Gang gives Chow's unerring visual sense many opportunities for play. In a terrific opening sequence, corrupt and cowardly cops stand by as a small group of intimidating criminals get wiped out by the prodigious Axe Gang, outfitted in ostentatious top hats that inevitably suggest the unintentionally funny opera of Gangs of New York. Then, the death-dealers do a dance that justifies the title "Kung Fu Hustle." Of course, the Axe Gang is asking to be undermined in increasingly definitive ways, first by Sing's small-time con and then by the surprising martial-arts skills of the Pig Sty residents. The Gang is forced to recruit the "World's Top Killer," a pro-bono sadist called the Beast (Siu Lung Leung). He, too, will lose face to the indomitable little guys.

Rock crumbles, wood splinters, and cartoon sound effects yelp in Chow's full-bore looney tune. In one sequence, Landlady chases Sing, kicking up dust and frightening motorists in Road Runner hyperspeed (Chow also uses Aram Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance," a favorite musical quotation of cartoon composers). During a climactic battle between an Axe Gang army—all outfitted in the black-necktie fashion branded as action chic by Tarantino and The Matrix—and a character referred to as (wink, wink) "The One," gangsters fly digitally as pinball sounds chirp. That moment alone brilliantly (self-)parodies the state of modern action cinema. Even if we wanted to lower the bar a little, can anyone even reach it?

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