Chow's martial arts flick brings the heat

It takes 20 minutes for Stephen Chow to show up in "Kung Fu Hustle." By that time, you almost have forgotten he was even coming. This is only due to the pack of interesting characters the filmmaker has set up at the beginning of his movie. There's Brother Sum, the heartless gang boss who likes to do a one-two step after blowing someone away with a shotgun. Then we get a married couple who run a slum aptly titled Pig Sty. Landlord is a charming but sleazy womanizer, and his wife, Landlady, is loud, commanding and never without a cigarette.

The children of Pig Sty kick around a soccer ball, until it gets away from them and ends up at the feet of a stranger. He begins to kick the ball in the air, fancifully dribbling it between his feet, and then abruptly pounds it, deflating the ball to the kid's horror.

"No more soccer!" he yells. Stephen Chow has arrived.

Instantly, we're told that we're going somewhere different from Chow's previous film, the blockbuster Chinese sports-action-comedy "Shaolin Soccer," while he nudge-nudge and wink-winks us along for the ride. Chow's character in "Hustle" is similar to his character in "Shaolin Soccer," so much so that they even have the same name, Sing. This time Sing wants desperately to be a gangster, to be the bad guy, but ultimately he can't escape his destiny as a hero.

"Kung Fu Hustle" has it all: snakebites, cat decapitation and even a gay kung-fu master. Chow's humor harkens back to the Vaudeville rule of threes (in Chow's case, it's more like a rule of sevens). It's funny the first couple of times, and gets even more funny the next five times! He combines slapstick, double meanings and nonstop tomfoolery with elaborate action sequences that can best be described as awe-inspiring and glorious.

Chow somehow makes it all work. His creation of the Axe Gang, the head honchos of a mob-infested world, with their hatchets and Abe Lincoln-inspired stovepipe hats, set up a group of villains nothing short of iconic. He sets up the film with a Tarantino-esque gang war, involving several tommy guns and plenty of bloody axes.

Chow throws in everything from a zany "Looney Tunes"-inspired chase scene to the totally awesome moves of the gay kung-fu master. Chow also slips in several nods to Western films like the tidal wave of elevator blood from "The Shining" and Sean Connery's last words in "The Untouchables" (a kung-fu master in "Hustle" speaks in English: "What are you prepared to do?!").

"Kung Fu Hustle" is masterfully done, a genuine action comedy that's as fun as it is smart. Even if there truly is no more soccer, Stephen Chow is here to say.

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