Shaolin kung fu is a lost art that has been practiced for millennium. Once forgotten masters of the sport now live in the slums like everybody else, reliving the golden moments of their glory days like a past lifetime, soon to be forgotten as the world walk on by.
Inspired by Captain Tsubasa, a hit manga of the 1980s, Shaolin Soccer (2001) directed by Stephen Chow is a nonstop action adventure sports movie that pushes the boundaries between comical fun and game. Set in modern China, the main character, nicknamed the “Mighty Steel Leg” Sing, is a struggling homeless man whose attempt to impress passerby’s with his kung fu skills are all but ignored. One day he has a chance encounter with “Golden Leg”, who little does he know is a failed kung fu soccer champion from long ago. Dressed in rags with a stumped toe on a limb, Golden Leg reflects back on the golden days of his youth before he was betrayed by his teammate who now runs the biggest soccer corporation in the world. Fueled with their dream to escape the city streets, Sing must help Golden Leg reconnect with his former soccer teammates in an attempt to get back what was stolen from his past.
Joined by Iron Head, a man who can shatter glass by his head alone, Hooking Leg, a master manipulator of the human body, Light Weight Vest the heavyweight, Iron Shirt with his abs of steel, and Bruce Lee’s twin brother, Lightning Hand; the once remaining champions of the past will unite to prepare for a new soccer match against the one evil who now has a drug abusing, money grabbing soccer team of his own, the “Team Evil” of all evil teams.
Shaolin Soccer is an epic tale of survival and redemption where good will do whatever it takes to defeat said evil. The action is balls to the wall fun with hot boiling feets of rage and earth bending powers from the gods. Soccer players fly into the sky and backflip while they do it, defying all rules of gravity where something as small as a ball is hit in midair with pin point accuracy, then quietly floating a little, cutting every square inch of grass on earth level on the way back down to watch the bad guys’ jaw-dropped reactions hit the dirt.
The comedic action flows so naturally that it really feels like you are witnessing the making of legends unfold right before your eyes. Its cartoon like gags and effects create a wacky universe all of its own, although not too far from reality to make it hard to believe. The comedy is littered with head nods to classic movie fights from movies like Apocalypse Now, The Matrix, and Jurassic Park, all mix matched and stir fried into a head bobbing, eye spinning style to create one of the most action packed, zany sports games to date that would inspire cartoons like Avatar the Last Airbender to come.
One of the best scenes in the movie takes place early on when the kung fu team meet for the first time. You watch the former to-be champions, now senior citizens, approach a roof top overlooking the city in their home made wind swept capes with such confidence that you doubt their abilities of whether or not they will make or break themselves before they can even begin practice. They appear nothing like traditional master from the past, either due to the lack of beards or for budget reasons, which adds much to the subtle comedy of the unlikely heroics. Then during their first match, they are pitted against a neighborhood team of cheating gangsters who beat everyone up with wrenches. When all hope seems lost at an unlikely turn of events, at the moment when these old men seem to be on the edge of death, you’ll be in for a surprise to see what these old men are capable of with their kung fu powers!
The movie would be nothing without its team of all star kung fu soccer players. Although all of the heroes in the movie may look like average people, they are anything but ordinary. Forget superheroes, these guys are the working class heroes who are willing to fight for a real dream. It isn’t the goal of defeating evil that push them forward; it is the journey of getting there that makes everybody the winner. As the saying goes, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may not know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Stereotypes of the rich and poor are however evident in the way the city is run, which has less to do with a reflection on society and more for the telling of a classic heroic journey that one would expect. The movie never slows itself down with details though and allow you to watch it more than once without breaking your own back.
The national pastime of Hong Kong will finally be brought back from the past to influence a new country to come where martial arts knows no bounds. Busy working women will learn to defend themselves against banana peels on the side walk. Construction workers will ease a load off their backs with their new found tricks of the trade. Everybody will have a good time “kung fu fighting”.
4 1/2 steam buns/ 5 steam buns
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