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By Josh Bell 

(2.5 stars)

Stars: Qiu Yuen, Wah Yuen, Stephen Chow
Director: Stephen Chow
Details: Opens Friday

American audiences lulled into complacency by the stately martial arts films of Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) will get a rude awakening with Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle. A gleeful mix of Jackie Chan and Bugs Bunny, Hustle is at first an exhilarating experience. Director, co-writer and star Chow presents a stylized version of 1940s China, where cities are ruled by gangsters who cause cops to cower in fear. The primary gang, the Axe Gang, has members who dress in three-piece suits and are never without their namesake weapons. They run the entire city, except for a tiny slum called Pig Sty.

Through a contrivance that's ultimately not worth mentioning, the Axe Gang decides to take on the slum, with its colorful population of losers and lowlifes. Meanwhile, a loser of a different sort (Chow) attempts to impress the gang so he can join their ranks. Impossibly, all the losers and lowlifes turn out to be virtuosic martial-arts experts, and an epic battle between gangsters and losers ensues.

That makes the plot sound much more coherent than it really is. Anyone attempting to follow the story will miss the point of the film. Chow barrels through characters without ever focusing on a single protagonist, and by about halfway through the film, it's hard to remember what the initial conflict was supposed to be about, anyway. The film is as much a parody as it is an actual martial- arts movie, and Chow goes further and further over the top during the course of the story. What starts as stunts enhanced with CGI soon becomes an absurd free-for-all of impossible maneuvers, and resembles a Roadrunner cartoon more than a Bruce Lee film.

Chow packs the film with goofy characters, including the slum's landlady (Yuen), who walks around in slippers and curlers and always has a cigarette dangling from her lips, yet can throw down with any kung-fu master. The humor is Three Stooges-level, but for a while it's enough. That is, until you realize that the characters are just thinly drawn sketches, the story is nonexistent, and all the fighting amounts to little more than pixels attacking each other. Even the Wile E. Coyote-Roadrunner dynamic had a certain amount of pathos; Kung Fu Hustle is inventive, wild and completely pointless.

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