Shaolin Soccer (HK 2001)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 8/11/02
Director: Stephen Chow
Action Director: Ching Siu Tung
Cast: Stephen Chow, Ng Man Tat, Vicki Zhao Wei, cameos by Karen Mok, Cecilia Cheung

Wow! Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I'd be heaping praise on a Stephen Chow film. Or a sports film, for that matter. Six brothers who studied Shaolin kung fu together made a vow to bring Shaolin martial arts into the modern world. However, Stephen Chow is the only one who is still trying, while the other brothers have all fallen victim to the rat race. A chance meeting with ex-soccer legend Golden Leg (Ng Man Tat) leads to the formation of a Shaolin soccer team, and the brothers finally reunite. However, their skills are rusty and dorment, and they must rediscover their kung fu roots. Success finally brings them to a showdown with the undefeated (and rightly named) Evil Team, but can Shaolin prevail against these hardened professionals?

First of all, the action sequences and soccer scenes are top notch and utterly spectacular. Some of the effects shots were so moving that they actually made me cry. Veteran kung fu filmmaker Ching Siu Tung worked with Centro (who did the digital effects for "The Stormriders" (1998), "A Man Called Hero" (1999), "The Duel" (2000), and "The Avenging Fist" (2001) ) to create the outrageous and over-the-top action scenes, and the results are stunning. Stephen Chow is a bit more subdued than usual, and even vulnerable and sympathetic. His physical performance is also quite impressive. The other brothers are great, and the Bruce Lee goalie is just priceless. Vicki Zhao Wei shows up as the love interest in the film, in the guise of a tai-chi breadmaker who suffers from an unattractive skin condition and low self esteem. Her action scenes are marvelous, but unfortunately she's the butt of a lot of jokes and is mercilessly ridiculed. Like so many Hong Kong comedies, the humor is often cruel, insensitive, and downright mean, which knocks my overall feeling about the film to just short of superb.

Try to see the original Hong Kong version if you can, before Miramax releases the re-edited, re-dubbed, and re-scored version to American audiences who won't know what they're missing. Early reports sound bad, and rumor has it that the film has been mangled just as badly as Jackie Chan's Americanized efforts. Once it comes out, the original is going to be hard to find...