Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle” is a live-action cartoon at heart, a breathless collection of madcap pratfalls and insane action that holds barely a trace of real emotion with which to connect.
Granted, it’s a fun cartoon at times. Writer-director-performer Chow is more a whirligig than an actor as he bumbles through frantic misadventures so wildly crafted they would fit right into a Road Runner-Wile E. Coyote smackdown.
Clever as they are, the elaborate fights and martial-arts stunts grow repetitive and wearisome. Lacking a strong human element, “Kung Fu Hustle” turns into one long gag reel, a visual marvel with no dramatic payoff.
Already a hit in Asia, the movie does offer martial-arts fans a chance to catch a few of the genre’s legends back in the game, some coaxed out of retirement by action-comedy star Chow.
The lineup includes Yuen Wah, Yuen Qiu and Leung Siu Lung, all movie heroes from Chow’s Hong Kong boyhood.
Set in China before the communist revolution, “Kung Fu Hustle” presents Chow (“Shaolin Soccer”) as the arrogant, sniveling wannabe Sing, a petty crook trying to gain a position among his city’s elite crime mob, the Axe Gang.
Sing’s pathetic pose as one of the mob’s protection-racket collectors draws the real Axe Gang’s attention to Pig Sty Alley, a festering ghetto that organized-crime bosses had previously ignored as worthless territory.
Incognito among the neighborhood’s seemingly helpless denizens are a handful of true martial-arts masters who battle back against the Axe Gang’s thugs, prompting an escalating series of confrontations between the good and bad guys.
Through it all, Sing darts in and out of the action, blustering here and licking his wounds there as his betters on both sides knock him about.
Chow’s order-out-of-chaos stunt work has drawn comparisons to the physical comedy of silent-film great Buster Keaton, though here, the filmmaker relies heavily on digital effects to craft his action, adding to the movie’s cartoon feel.
Live-action stunts were overseen largely by Yuen Wo Ping, the choreographer behind action in “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Fight sequences lack the grace and style of those films; Chow and his collaborators instead go for mayhem and extreme knockouts.
Unlike the artfully designed ballet of bloodshed in Uma Thurman’s showdown toward the end of “Kill Bill, Vol. 1,” however, the battles of “Kung Fu Hustle” all start to look the same.
As the central character, Sing is too obnoxious and contemptible to care about for most of the movie. The only time he evokes empathy is in a heroic flashback when he stood up to bullies terrorizing a young girl, whom he greets with far less nobility when he encounters her again as a grown-up, the mute ice-cream girl Fong (Huang Sheng Yi).
Fong still idealizes Sing, but why she cares about the lout as an adult, when he treats her like gum on his shoe, is a mystery.
Clearly, she sees the inner hero in Sing. If only Chow had made more effort to let the audience see, too.