It's taken three years for writer, director and star Stephen Chow to finish the follow-up to his international hit Shaolin Soccer, which was released here in a cut and dubbed version by Miramax. Kung Fu Hustle has dominated Asian markets for the past six months. Backed this time by Sony Pictures Classics, the actor has a chance for a breakthrough with American audiences.

For this film, Chow has constructed a Depression-era world cobbled together from theatre and old movies. The ruthless Axe Gang controls a city in pre-revolutionary China, but leaves the poor alone. A slum called Pig Sty Alley is run by a lazy landlord (Yuen Wah) and his shrieking harridan of a wife (Yuen Qui). Sing (Chow), a penniless drifter, and his fat sidekick (Lam Tze Chung) pretend to be Axe Gang members to extort money from Pig Sty Alley. Instead, they start a fight that accidentally spills over into Axe Gang territory.

When the Axe Gang retaliates, three incognito kung-fu masters step forward to fight them. A coolie (Xing Yu) who has mastered the Twelve Kicks, a tailor (Chiu Chi Ling) known for his Iron Fist, and fast-food chef Doughnut (Dong Zhi Hua) with a Hexagonal Staff defeat scores of black-suited gangsters.

To save face, gang leader Brother Sum (Chan Kwok Kwan) must crush the kung-fu masters. He hires two harpists (Jia Kang Xi and Fung Hak On) whose music is sharp enough to pulverize bricks and slice bodies in two. But they find two even more powerful fighters lurking in the slum.
Sum sends for the Beast (Leung Siu Lung), whose fierce devotion to martial arts has confined him to a mental institution. But in doing so, Sum unleashes a psychopath who destroys his criminal empire. A final kung-fu master must appear to battle the Beast.

Kung Fu Hustle's prolonged battles are integrated into a plot with the pacing and complexity of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Flashbacks, montages, song-and-dance routines, and disquisitions on martial-arts philosophies appear alongside expertly staged slapstick. With action choreography by Yuen Wo Ping and Sammo Hung, the film recreates the shifting looks and fighting styles over the past 40 years, from hard-core, old-school bone-crushing to the balletic, Matrix-derived flights of the present.

Chow is a champion of the underdog, and in Kung Fu Hustle he continues his theme of finding heroes in unlikely places. The film is filled with grotesque characters who evolve into likeable people with real feelings. The director cedes much of his screen time to older, and in some cases retired, martial-arts stars like Yuen Qui and Leung Siu Lung, who add unexpected nuances to the general mayhem.

Chow's work makes few concessions to Western tastes, and the director continues to carry some elements, notably violence, too far. Still, Kung Fu Hustle is a glowing tribute to the movies of his youth, told with irreverence as well as respect. It's a technically expert and visually seductive tour de force from someone who is very likely the funniest man in Asia.