Oh, how I remember my first exhilarating taste of Hong Kong action pictures and comedies in the mid-'80s, in the glory days of Tsui Hark, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, John Woo, and Chow Yun-Fat—names that these days make me cringe when I see them attached to big-budget American productions. The tackiness and the assembly-line quality of the Hong Kong aesthetic didn't seem to matter as much when the movies were lean and fleet and full of fearless and disciplined acrobats (and in Chinese, often with laughable English subtitles). I felt the old HK giddiness again—for the first time in years—watching Shaolin Soccer (Miramax), a glitteringly dumb special-effects comedy directed by and starring Stephen Chow. It's a combination-plate parody of HK martial-arts superhero pictures and go-for-it underdog sports movies, and the blend is so disarming that it doesn't matter that the characters are cartoons and that the U.S. distributor, Miramax, has chopped it down to 87 minutes (from nearly two hours). It's the sort of movie that leaves you smiling like an idiot.
The plot hinges on the attempt of a disgraced and maimed ex-soccer star (Man Tat Ng) to assemble a soccer squad to go up against the all-powerful, steroid-enhanced "Team Evil," owned by the mogul responsible for his humiliation. On the street he meets Shaolin Iron Leg (director Chow), a fervent—and borderline-insufferable—proselytizer for the Shaolin superpowered way of life, in which gravity is less an immutable law than a suggestion to be discarded. Iron Leg and his four brothers—among them one who's massively obese and another with an "iron" head—end up forming the atomic nucleus of the new team, which scorches everything in its path on its way to the climactic match against the formidable Team Evil. When their Shaolin superpowers kick in, the brothers strike furious martial arts poses with great globes of flame behind them; and the balls that they kick carry away goalies, goalies' clothes, nets, and pieces of stadium.
I have no idea what's missing from the Miramax cut—although it would be easy enough to check, as the DVD has been available from overseas sources and in sundry Chinatowns for over a year. But I'm happy that the studio didn't go with its dubbed version: Shaolin Soccer needs the sound of Chinese voices to make it seem less disembodied. As it stands, a messy romance between Iron Leg and a Shaolin bean-paste bun shaper (Vicki Zhao) with a miserable complexion doesn't fully click (although it's a lovely touch when she's fired for crying into her buns and making them acrid). And I wish there had been more flagrantly unrealistic song-and-dance numbers, like the one that makes you think the actors have stumbled into Bollywood.
But the basketball game played by Looney Tunes characters in the lame Space Jam has nothing on Shaolin soccer. In fact, the soccer scenes are what the "Burly Brawl" in The Matrix Reloaded (2003) might have been if the Wachowski brothers hadn't been pickling for so long in their own importance: freewheeling to the point of trippiness. Much of the action is computer-enhanced—complete with cameras swooping past frozen players, as in the Matrix's famous "bullet time." But Chow never loses touch with the real athleticism of his performers. When you watch them soar and somersault and send the ball scorching through the net, the distinction between the real world and a video game melts away. Whatever this universe is, you're inside it, with your mouth open, wishing that all sporting events could be this exhilarating, that all human bodies could work this way, that all simpleminded movies could be this mindfully empty-headed.