Paying homage to Buster Keaton, The Godfather and just about everything in between, Steven Chow's 2004 martial-arts action comedy is a visually stunning, slapstick riot of a movie. Not since Jackie Chan's Police Story have I been so enamored with a kung fu movie.
Set in 1930's Shanghai at a time when large gangs of roaming thugs ruled the streets, businesses and police officials. The current big cheeses in this area are the Axe Gang who are as merciless as they are stylishly sharp-suited. Thanks to wannabe-gangster Sing (played by director and writer Chow) who poses as a member of the Axe Gang and tries to extort money from a terminally poor district of the town known as 'Pig-Sty Alley', this small community of peasants soon become embroiled in a brutal turf war with the axe-wielding maniacs.
This synopsis is severely underplaying the charm of the film however. The cinematography and direction are excellent, combining the live-action cartoon style of say, 'The Mask' with action from 'Crouching Tiger'. It's a combination that works well bringing a much-needed element of fun to a stilted Kung Fu genre (not that Crouching Tiger is stilted, you understand). The action scenes are well-choreographed with impressive wire-work routines and bone-crunching stunts.
During the film, there are moments straight out of a RoadRunner cartoon. In one, Sing and the Landlady, played with gusto by Qiu Yuen, go for a madcap run down a road, dust trailing in their wake as their feet go ten to the dozen. They perform Matrix-style manoeuvres over cars and lorries in their way and it's so surprising you can't help but laugh at the sheer absurdity. In another scene, Landlady throws her wayward husband out of a third floor window as she finds lipstick on his collar. As he lands in an unceremonious heap on the floor, he is followed by a plant pot which lands firmly on his head in true comic fashion. Director Chow must have watched a lot of Tom and Jerry cartoons in his time.
The characters are purposely over the top and clichéd. The Landlady of Pig Sty Alley is a no-nonsense brash and loud (very loud, as it turns out) woman with cigarette and hair-rollers permanently ensconced. Her husband is an alcoholic letch complete with leery moustache. One of the residents of the Alley plays up to every camp gay stereotype possible but it's all done in a very tongue-in-cheek way as if to say, 'We KNOW they're over-the-top because they're supposed to be'. It's a lampoon, sure, but done in a very affectionate way.
As the plot progresses, the Axe-gang bring in martial arts masters to help defeat the embattled citizens of Pig-Sty Alley and the skills and powers of each one is layered on top of the other. Based around the teachings of ancient 'schools' such as the School of Twelve Kicks or Palm Fu, the action becomes ever more incredible. But, and this is testament to Chows direction, you are drawn along with it, thinking 'How on earth could THEY be defeated?'. 'Oh, THAT'S how!'. In some ways it's akin to a video game as the bosses get harder and harder the further the hero travels along the story.
The story belongs to Sing however as he struggles to fulfill his destiny. His dream of becoming a Palm Fu Master in tatters (told by a rather disturbing flash-back), he is convinced a life of being a gangster is for him. The trouble is, underneath all the bluster, bravado and attempted bullying, he's a really nice guy and it's not until the final third do we get to see his true self.
As much as the film lends itself to a cartoon-like style, the violence is quite graphic in places. The Axe Gang, in the opening sequence, show their propensity for grisly murder as they slay a rival gang with their axes. Unlike the cartoons where Wile E.Coyote gets up after the umpteenth anvil-falling accident, here, when people are killed they stay killed. This perhaps accounts for its 15-rating here in the UK (or R in the US). Paradoxically, at other times, injuries that would lay waste to a mortal-being are treated with comic effect. Witness when Sing receives multiple knife wounds (through his own incompetence it has to be said) and is then bitten on the mouth by two Cobras at the same time. One of many laugh out loud moments.
Overall, it's a very engaging and fun film to watch and never takes itself too seriously. It would be worth it just to see what the final bad guy's superpowers are and how he could possibly be beaten but there's so much more to it than that. While the stylized violence is not to every ones taste, for fans of the genre looking for something fresh, new and above all fun, they could do much worse than this.
A high-kicking, palm-fisted, snake-biting 8 out of 10.
Running time: 95 minutes
Written by: Stephen Chow
Directed by: Stephen Chow
IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0373074/ (rated 7.8)
Trivia: The names of the superpowers are taken from the novels of Louis Cha.