"With great power comes great responsibility." That may not be a snatch of dialogue as famous as "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Or "Why do we have to have all these kids?" But every Spider-Man fan knows it, and they're all going to recognize it when it pops up, in all earnestness, in the middle of Kung Fu Hustle. Others will recognize verbal or visual references to The Matrix, The Shining, and many others.
But this isn't just a film that relies on previous films for laughs. It may also be the only film ever made that uses both knives and vipers for comic effect.
It all starts off in what appears to be a serious manner. The deadly Axe Gang, headed up by the dapper Brother Sum, shows up in town with mayhem in mind, killing anyone who gets in their way with a well-aimed toss of one of their spinning lethal weapons. Brother Sum does a little dance as he kills; his minions do one, in unison, while practicing for their next assault.
But there's something off-kilter the way the violence is presented. It's ... funny!
There's an explanation of why the Axe Gang works only in wealthy areas and stays out of poor areas. Then the action switches to one of those poor areas, named Pig Sty, where all the townsfolk work hard and are happy. Well, they're not all happy. The nasty landlady, replete with gaudy hair curlers and an ever-lit cigarette and one bad attitude is certainly not happy. And her husband -- when he's being beaten up by the Mrs. -- also isn't very happy.
But it's into this town that two men who call themselves Axe Gang members (the skinny one is played by writer-director Stephen Chow), arrive, try ineffectively to cause some trouble, and are soon followed by the real gang who don't want anyone raining on their own parade.
But there are three men that, now through with their warrior days, have retired to Pig Sty, and they don't exactly cotton to all of these nattily dressed, top-hatted, axe-wielding men coming to town and causing a ruckus.
What? This still doesn't sound very funny? It probably sounds even less comedic to know that the bad guys decide to get rid of the town's good guys by hiring the Number One Killer, nicknamed "The Beast," to do the deed. But when they find out that he's locked up in an asylum, they opt for the Number Two and Three Top Killers, who come to town wearing shades, sporting long fingernails, posing as musicians, and sharing a magic koto that fires off swords as it's being played.
Not only that, but the general level of violence and the speeded-up photography of dust-raising chases across the desert establish Kung Fu Hustle as an homage to ... the Road Runner.
Causing bouts of semi-convulsive laughter throughout are the film's never-ending supply of sight gags and sound effects, the landlady's special power ("The Lion's Roar") and the fact that no one is exactly who they first seemed to be -- though everyone turns out exactly as you'd hoped.
The two would-be Axe Gang members try their darnedest to come across as bad guys. But more important, the Scroll of the Golden Palm is explained, and a clearing of the chi flow is accomplished. If all of that doesn't sound confusing enough, Chow has gone out of his way to make things almost deliriously confusing. Still, everything calms down with the development of Chow's character -- I think his name is Sing -- told through a sepia-tinted flashback to his childhood.
Everybody is kung fu fighting at one time or another, using ingredients that are part ballet, part Three Stooges, part The Mask, part every kung fu fight in the history of film. A fantastic and utterly absurd clash in a gambling casino leads to the brilliant insanity of the climactic fights.
One sequence features a slightly too brutal (but still comic) bit with some poor guy getting his head repeatedly smashed (which is probably what gave the film its really undeserved R rating). But even that episode is softened by examples of "toe stepping" fighting and the "toad style" of fighting -- which are funny and nothing else.
Most viewers are going to be exhausted from all the fun and fighting, but one more surprise awaits -- a surprisingly sweet and lovely ending. (In Cantonese and Mandarin, with subtitles.)