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Rated 3.01 stars
by 2152 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Hong Kong's King of Comedy
by Jeffrey Chen

Mel Brooks. Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker. Monty Python. Stephen Chow? Movie spoofing is an art that can boast of several creative forces from the past, but apparently not many in the present. The closest thing Americans can look for these days is the Scary Movie series, a dopey set of flicks containing little ingenuity and plenty of bad comedy timing. It might be better for us to look across the sea to Hong Kong, where spoofmeister Stephen Chow has been practicing his trade for the better part of the last decade.

Shaolin Soccer will be the first of his movies to be given a theatrical run on American shores, and it's not only the best film for potential fans in the West to start with, it's arguably Chow's best movie. The actor/writer/director built up his reputation in Asia as a zany, nonsensical comedy provider. With Shaolin Soccer, he scored his biggest commercial and critical hit, and it isn't hard to see why. Chow's earlier movies, starting with the 1994 James Bond parody From Beijing with Love and moving on through efforts like 1999's King of Comedy, are quite loose-ended. Their comedic highlights are usually riotous, but they have to fight through uneven pacing, liberal (to put it mildly) plotting developments, and a predilection for extreme physical violence. In Shaolin Soccer, all of these things are toned down.

The result is a movie with a tighter story, more polished humor, and a more consistent comedic flow, none of which detracts from its overall zaniness. By using a standard sports-misfits-beat-the-odds plot and sticking to it, Chow can focus on the outrageousness without going too far out of bounds. His better trademarks remain intact, from his various movie references to his skill at making kung-fu look over-the-top silly, while his weaker tendencies are subdued -- those spots of excessive violence, for instance, common to a Hong Kong audience but perhaps jarring elsewhere, are still there, but they're a little more justified this time as a set up for payback. Meanwhile, his penchant for bathroom humor is kept wisely in check; gross-outs are present but relatively tempered.

I realize writing all this may be going a long way to give praise to what is effectively one of the best knee-jerk laugh-out-loud crack-ups I've seen in a long time. Chow knows the secrets of the spoof genre -- create a world which is totally normal to its very serious inhabitants, but is bursting with absurdity to outside viewers. For Shaolin Soccer, the crux of the comedy comes from a whimsical theory: awesome martial arts skills look funny when applied to situations outside of fighting (and especially in a corny sports story, complete with a romantic subplot). Chow seems to be asking, if we can believe in a universe where people could possess these crazy physical skills, why wouldn't those people use those skills for the purposes of everyday life?

Shaolin Soccer has the added benefit of possessing a madcap array of comedic action sequences, all playfully dressed up in faux-Matrix slo-mo rotating camera special effects, to help  win over western audiences. The placement of these action scenes, most of them in the context of physics-defying soccer matches, is a deft display of pacing, with each one more hilariously explosive than the last, until the climax ups the ante so high that keeping normal expectations becomes futile.

Chow makes the best use of his persona here -- he's scruffy, cool, likeable, affable, and unassuming. He never resorts to smart-aleckiness and delivers a sympathetic, unironic performance that reflects the work of the best physical comedians of the past. While his previous movies were funny, Shaolin Soccer is the work that raises his oeuvre to a higher plane. Should he be listed among the comedy greats I mentioned at the beginning? This movie makes the strongest case for it.

Note: I watched this movie on a Chinese video disc and have not seen the cut Miramax has sent to U.S. theaters. Hopefully, they didn't change too much (and I really hope they didn't dub it, but I think they did). I'll try to catch it and, when I do, I may discuss the changes.

(Released by Miramax and rated "PG-13" for action violence and thematic elements.)

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