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Published: Friday, 4/22/2005

Movie review: Kung Fu Hustle ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

You often hear people say the movies have become cartoons.

Practically comic books.

Those people have no idea.

Stephen Chow's goofy Kung Fu Hustle, a new parody of Hong Kong martial arts movies, has less in common with Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon than it does with Tex Avery and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Your bearings feel thrown: As brutal as it gets, dents do not stay in heads very long here. (Is there a word in Mandarin for "Acme"?)

One hero, for instance, wears rainbow curlers, a house coat, and a cigarette permanently dangling from her lips, and when she screams, the courtyard beneath her apartment is blown around with the force of a typhoon. You can see the wind, and the lines in the wind, the way you do when the Tasmanian Devil blows through.

You'd think years of live-action comic book movies and superhero pictures would prepare you for this, but the best way I can think to explain it is: Kung Fu Hustle is to Jackie Chan, what Sin City is to the first Superman film. That is, gravity, physics, the limits of the human body, and the limits of film itself are tossed in favor of an impressionistic, pop-culture pastiche of the universe.

It says right here that the fight choreographer is Yuen Wo Ping, the innovator behind those elegant combat scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix. But for the life of me, I do not understand what choreography is involved when your hero is literally getting kicked by opponents into the stratosphere. The only laws of physics adhered to are the laws Avery and Chuck Jones created with Looney Tunes and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby perfected for their Marvel Comics.

That is, there are no laws.

If Sin City suggests the promise of an all-digital cinema, subject to endless manipulation, Kung Fu Hustle is closer to what that cinema will look like when it becomes our everyday reality.

Sounds pretty heady, huh?

Nah, it's really not.

The everyday reality of any art is generally redundant, and Kung Fu Hustle is a sort of form of extreme redundancy - curiously, one with little impact. But this is the predominant way we watch movies now - the same way we experience amusement park rides. That's not the freshest analogy, but when I think about Kung Fu Hustle, I can't improve upon it: Its thrills are outlandish, dizzying, pile-driven, and gone from your head before the next one replaces it. Let me give you an idea of what I'm talking about: That frumpy landlady (Yuen Qiu, with a mug out of Mad magazine) gives chase to our hero, a wascally wabbit named Sing, who attempted, rather lamely, to intimidate her.

Sing (played by Chow, the filmmaker, a comedy superstar in Asia) takes off for the countryside, his legs a whirlwind of spin, kicking up a mile-long trail of dust. The landlady is fast on his heels, cigarette dangling, throwing her kitchen knives. They stick (ow), stick again (owie), stick once more (sheesh) - and the funniest part: Sing periodically checks if she's gaining on him by using the knives sticking from his body as rearview mirrors.

That last sardonic detail is pure Looney Tunes. Insert the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, and don't change a thing, and you have a more faithful adaptation of Looney Tunes than the last Looney Tunes feature. Which, on the other hand, is not to say this is suitable for kids:

Chow freely mixes the cartoony with the gruesome. The elasticity of the limbs extend to the tone, which slides from sentimental to bang-up to the sublimely beautiful. Only animation attempts whiplash like that - animation and musicals.

The plot, for instance, is practically West Side Story mashed against The Seven Samurai. Or maybe rather, the Fred Astaire classic Top Hat. Chow conspicuously plasters the movie poster on a wall, and it's not random: Kung Fu Hustle is a blender of pop influences. That landlady's neighborhood is a Hong Kong ghetto of hardscrabble tenements that wouldn't be out of place in Gangs of New York's Five Points. Sing is driven out, but learns he's the reincarnation of an ancient kung fu master and returns to defend the old folks.

Who hardly need defending.

Pig Sty Alley, as it's called, is not any old retirement village but the home of a team of martial arts legends with Matrix skills.

Sing teams with them to fend off a gang of stovepipe hat-wearing dandies (like Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs) who carry axes, stroll into Pig Sty, and yes, casually break into a line dance.

As a kung fu movie, Kung Fu Hustle is nothing special, but as a spectacle of non sequiturs, it's original and disposable and welcome. The one drawback to the popularity of Chinese-language action movies in this country - films like House of Flying Daggers and Hero - has been a generation who will never know the sublime joy of martial arts as a light, eye-popping feast of high spirits. They're being nursed on films about honor and sacrifice.

Nothing wrong with that.

Chow - best-known in the United States for the equally goofy Shaolin Soccer - just prefers more of a mash-up. A mash-up is when musical works of opposing sensibilities are layered over each other, creating a third work, sometimes more ingenious than its parts.

Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" mashed to Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious" gives us "Smells Like Booty." The Sex Pistols mashed to Madonna's "Ray of Light" gives us "Ray of Gob." You'll find them online if you hunt hard enough. Kung Fu Hustle brings the idea out of the musical ghetto - and into Pig Sty Alley. Honor mashed to Bugs Bunny gives us ... Wabbit Samurai?

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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