Shaolin Soccer (2001)

Rating: B+

Dir: Stephen Chow Sing-Chi + Lee Lik-Chi
Star: Stephen Chow Sing-Chi, Ng Man-Tat, Vicki Zhao, Yin Tse

Jackie Chan and Jet Li found success in the States through their Hong Kong movies; now Stephen Chow looks set to do the same. Or did: Miramax had bought the rights to this, but have put any US release off until 2003. I kinda see why: this is no Crouching Tiger; think something more like a Hong Kong cross between The Naked Gun and Escape to Victory. Ng plays a former star player, now crippled, who uses Chow as the core of a motley side of martial-artists e.g. the keeper is a ringer for Bruce Lee, to take on his former master’s Evil Team (yes, that is their name!) in a national football tournament.

Their training and matches are utterly amazing; wire-work and digital effects mesh into something completely jaw-dropping: imagine the late Chuck Jones, directing the game from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but all done in live-action. Inevitably, the stuff in between will drag to a Western audience, especially the endless introductions of all Chow’s relatives. There’s a strange romance with a tai-chi breadmaker (Zhao) that is occasionally touching, yet underused. It feels particularly like padding, since you’ll be impatiently waiting for the next round, where imagination and invention let fly once more. It’s always worth the wait, however, and provides a textbook example of how digital effects should be used – as a punchline, not the entire joke.