Crouching Forward, Hidden Goalie

Stephen Chow's kung fu/soccer spoof is fun, sort of

If you've seen a movie at a Landmark theater in the past year or so, you've probably enjoyed the trailer for Shaolin Soccer. Over a lilting Asian flute that morphs into pounding percussion, airborne soccer players execute kung fu moves that send the ball blazing across the field (or, in one case, into the firmament). In a rapid-fire romp through comedic setup after setup, we meet a kung fu monk eager to popularize his craft, a team of hangdog brothers reunited to restore their dignity, and a bald female goalie with a yin-yang balance so harmonic that, with a twist of the wrist, she can tai chi the ball out of the box and back into play.

All of which makes the movie look like a hell of a lot of fun. The amiable high jinks, winking references to revered cultural icons, and over-the-top special effects seem to promise a rollicking satire of an entire herd of sacred cows: Bruce Lee, Ang Lee, John Woo, and David Beckham, among others.

Now that the film is finally being released in theaters -- in a lithe, American-friendly, subtitled version in which all Chinese signage and even tattoos appear in English -- I'm sorry to report that it's a disappointment. Yes, it's mildly amusing, good for occasional laughs and satisfying grunts of appreciation. But it's far from inspired. It's just goofy and fun, sort of.

The martial  arts masters/ soccer ball  kickers take on  Team Evil
The martial arts masters/ soccer ball kickers take on Team Evil

Which is a shame, since it was obviously written and directed (by star Stephen Chow) in high spirits, with characters lifting off their feet at every turn. There appears to be the potential to reach comedic heights, but most of the jokes fizzle, the plot defies its own logic, and the action fails to build the level of empathy required to sustain the violence it allows. Also, after multiple scenes of supernatural soccer juju, the audience has been special-effected into a kind of jaded submission, no longer impressed with what should blow us away.

The story, simply enough, unites Shaolin monk "Mighty Iron Leg" Sing (Chow) with former soccer star "Golden Leg" Fung (Ng Man Tat), long since crippled by a mob of raging fans after missing a crucial goal. Sing seeks a forum in which to popularize kung fu; Fung wants to avenge his defeat at the hands of his long-time rival, coach of Team Evil. Once partnered, Sing and Fung recruit a team to carry out their mutually beneficial mission: using kung fu to win the All-China Soccer Championship.

They begin with Sing's brothers, former kung fu students whose names describe their strengths: Iron Head, Hook Kick Leg, and so on. Initially the men demur (or flat-out refuse), but as they begin to experience the inklings of reawakening power, they're drawn toward the field. The training may be punishing and their prospects gloomy, but the prize is nothing less than the glory of their departed youth, fully realized against a highly immoral opponent. Game on.

What happens next is hardly a secret, and it doesn't need to be: As the movie is designed to spoof both kung fu and sports films, our familiarity with the trajectory of the underdog team is taken as a given. Also Chow works hard to win our sympathies for the down-at-heels team, darkening their rivals to such despicable depths that we can't help but hope to see them suffer. What Chow doesn't manage to do is corral the supernatural logic of his movie into a consistent vision that doesn't veer suddenly into the incomprehensible.

For example: There's an issue with the violence. In this movie, soccer isn't merely a game, "It's war," which translates into a surprising display of blood. Chow could have gone one of two ways here: He could have displayed the pummeling without its real-world consequences, allowing his characters to dust themselves off and continue playing after, for instance, being lifted into the air and beaned against the top of the goalpost. Or he could have (as he sometimes does) shown the blood, broken bones, and skin singed to black from its contact with a ball encased in fire. This second approach, while more responsible, is significantly less funny: Who can quite manage a laugh when people are being carried off the field on stretchers?

An undermining problem with Shaolin Soccer is that Chow doesn't choose between these methods of portraying the violence: He uses both. Sometimes a blow that would have killed a player has no effect; at other times a character drops in a heap of blood. Nobody appears to die, but this flip-flopping, in addition to disturbing the film's sense of fun, destroys its logic. Are the characters vulnerable or aren't they? Shaolin Soccer isn't immune from the necessity to create a universe with consistent laws of physics merely because it's a spoof.

Nor is the film exempt from one of the essential tenets of satisfying entertainment -- the need to connect emotionally. In order to get on board for the ride this film wants us to enjoy, we need to care about what happens. And Sing, a servant of Shaolin kung-fu who wants to improve the world, is often endearing. But then, he can't fall in love with the girl until she both performs feats of supernatural goalie-ism and (through some unseen magic) gets her facial scars removed. And the team's enemy -- the impossibly sinister coach of Team Evil -- is just a fop whose bravado is hardly worth our time. Yes, Shaolin Soccer is a farce, but it's necessary that we care about the characters even so.

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