“Shaolin Soccer” is a high-concept goal in one. Seamlessly integrating extensive digital effects with Stephen Chow’s distinct brand of double-take comedy, this wacky blend of kung fu, soccer and an underdog-triumphant yarn could finally establish the Hong Kong comedian outside East Asia when Miramax unleashes it into the U.S. market. Since opening July 5, pic has already become Hong Kong’s all-time highest grosser, with receipts north of HK$60 million ($7.7 million).
Movie was a high-stakes throw of the dice for Chow, 39, who was the territory’s top-grossing star alongside Jackie Chan during the first half of the ’90s but who has worked more sparingly since, mostly on projects for his own company, the Star Overseas. “Soccer” is his third Star production, following the classic “The God of Cookery” and more patchy “King of Comedy,” and breaks a silence of more than two years.
Though thoroughly Cantonese in their mixture of verbal and physical shtick, Chow’s films have often been retreads of Western genres, from James Bond to Jim Carrey movies. “Soccer,” however, is the closest tribute to his personal hero, Bruce Lee, and incorporates elements from “Cookery” (kung fu meets Chinese cuisine). The big improvements here are in making the digital effects a full team member rather than occasional substitute, and a script that shows some strategy and through-play. Untranslatable verbal gags are at a minimum.
After a simple B&W intro, in which soccer player Fung accepts a bribe to miss a penalty kick, and ends up crippled after a beating, CG effects make an early appearance as Hung, the villain, smoothly morphs into color and across 20 years to become manager of the Evil Team. Hung (veteran ’60s matinee idol Patrick Tse) has kept Fung (Ng Mang-tat)on his staff as a lame lackey.
In the street, Fung comes across Mighty Steel Leg (Chow), a Shaolin kung fu practitioner reduced to selling garbage who dreams of re-packaging his skills. Plot finally kicks in at the half-hour point when Fung notices Steel Leg’s mighty kicking powers, and persuades him to gather his former Shaolin classmates — all broke, fat or balding — into a soccer team to challenge Evil Team for the national championship.
That’s it for plot, but Chow, along with his regular directing partner Lee Lik-chee, shows a mature blending of character comedy and physical action throughout the picture. Chow’s trademark of building a mock heroic mood and then suddenly puncturing it is brilliantly shown in an early match vs. a dirty-tricks team, in which our beleaguered hero, crawling through the sand, briefly fantasizes himself in a war movie — all done in a single tracking shot. The gag is then followed by an equally remarkable sequence in which time is literally suspended as his players rediscover their Shaolin powers.
Experienced action director Ching Siu-tung and his martial arts team have come up with an array of physical moves that mix in references to kung fu movies without losing sight of character. And as always, Chow shows himself an acute parodist of other genres while adding his own cherry on the top.
Most impressively, script sets up ideas and gags that only get their payoff many reels later.
Gamine Mainland star Zhao Wei makes a perky female lead, initially as a shy, acne-covered tai-chi expert and later as the heroine of the day. Between times, she gets one tour-de-force sequence that moves from comedy (showing up as a cross between Anita Mui and Joey Wang in “A Chinese Ghost Story”), through a show of self-confidence against her bullying female boss, to a touching romantic letdown with Chow.
Playing, by many of Chow’s regulars, is fine, especially veterans Ng and Tse, the latter having a whale of a time as the cigar-smoking villain. Popular actresses Cecilia Cheung and Karen Mok cameo as ace soccer players in dreadlocks and facial hair.
Raymond Wong’s Morricone-like music is a major component, evoking a Leone-ish heroic tone, and even the main titles have a pulpy energy that recalls those for “Fistful of Dollars” mixed with Bruce Lee’s “The Way of the Dragon.”
Digital effects, by Hong Kong-based Centro, have an appealingly cartoonish flavor. Entire film was shot in China (around Shanghai and Zhuhai), where pic is currently banned for esoteric procedural reasons.
Version reviewed is the longer one that replaced the original 97-minute cut in Hong Kong theaters after three weeks. Of the two, it’s undoubtedly superior. With trimming of an early nightclub song routine (which revolves round a single local joke), this version should be the one to go with internationally.