But to most American moviegoers, Shaolin Soccer will be their first glimpse at the clever Mr. Chow's work; and it's been a long time coming. While Shaolin Soccer was released in Asia in 2001 and has gone on to become one of the continent's biggest blockbusters, Miramax has been fumbling with the American release for nearly two years now. At first, the plan was to cut the well-tuned kung fu spoof down a half hour, dub it over with English actors, and re-edit it so it could earn a kid-friendlier PG rating. Thankfully, the Miramax folks have come to their senses, even if it took this long to do it.
While it is shorter than the original, the American version is basically the same film I first watched on import DVD nearly two years ago, but with better translated subtitles. The story centers on a group of misfits: disgraced and handicapped former soccer star Golden Leg (Ng Man-Tat), upbeat former Shaolin monk Sing -- aka Steel Leg -- who's looking to spread the gospel of kung fu to the masses (Chow), and Sing's demoralized Shaolin brothers who have lost their powers after turning their backs on the old ways.
Golden Leg vows to beat his ultra-slick villainous rival Hung (Patrick Tse), owner of aptly-named reigning champs Team Evil. After he discovers Sing's phenomenal kicking ability (he nails a beer can into a brick wall from miles away), Golden Leg talks the eager monk into using soccer to spread his Zen message. After training Sing and his brothers -- Steel Head, Iron Shirt, Hook Kick Leg, and Weight Vest -- in the art of soccer (which is the art of war, in this movie), Golden Leg takes his superpowered team through the insane ranks of a national soccer tournament in hopes of defeating his rival and winning $1 million.
Undoubtedly, the stars of this film are the over-the-top stunts and kung fu action, which sublimely blend artfulness with silliness. The comic gags are often simply cornball, but, much like this comedy's mini love story between Sing and tai chi-practicing bun maker Mui (Vicki Zhao), their lightheartedness and sweetness win out in the end, moving even the most cynical to laugh out loud.
I'm certain that Chow will rack up many comparisons to fellow Hong Kong icon Jackie Chan through this American release: both do their own stunts, both are hugely successful and popular in Asia, and both tend to do comedy over pure action. But Shaolin Soccer is like no Jackie Chan movie you've ever seen (especially unlike any of Chan's latest U.S.-released junk), and Chow is also very different from Chan.
Chow's filmmaking dares to be bizarre and lighthearted; he isn't afraid to be a real storyteller, and he employs humor that may stump the mainstream mindset. (I've heard it referred to as his "nonsense style.") Having seen another one of Chow's wacky comedies, God of Cookery, I know that this boldness is no accident; he's an incredible talent, whether it's as a charismatic lead or as a skilled screenwriter or an amazing martial artist. Let's just hope that Chow sticks to his gonzo guns, and keeps making fantastically watchable, hilarious, action-packed films like this one. And if Miramax's gamble to put this out in its nearly original form pays off, maybe we'll even start seeing more of his efforts here in the U.S.
The DVD includes both the U.S. (dubbed with English) and Chinese (subtitled only) versions of the film -- the latter about 18 minutes longer and answering some questions left as mystery in the American cut.
Aka Siu lam juk kau .
Bend it like Chow!
Run time: 87 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 12th July 2001
Box Office USA: $0.2M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 82 Rotten: 8
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Stephen Chow
Producer: Kwok-fai Yeung
Starring: Stephen Chow as Sing, Ng Man-Tat as Fung, Patrick Tse Yin as Hung, Zhao Wei as Mui, Wong Yat-Fei as Iron Head, Tenky Tin Kai-Man as Iron Shirt, Mok Mei-Lam as Hooking Leg, Danny Chan Kwok-Kwan as Empty Hands, Lam Tze-Chung as Weight Vest, Karen Mok Man-Wai as Dragon Twin, Cecilia Cheung as Dragon Twin, Lee Kin-Yan as Manny
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