Shaolin Soccer (2001)

Not Available in the U.S.

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Pedicab Driver

Wing Chun

Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave

Shaolin Soccer

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Our rating: three LAVA® motion lamps.

"With all the money I make, you'd
think I could afford a better haircut."
So, who is the biggest movie star in Hong Kong? Outside of the territory most people would guess Jackie Chan, who is admittedly one of the most popular stars in the world. But when it comes to the Hong Kong box office, the highest grossing star is currently Stephen Chow, a comedian who directs and stars in big budget movies that combine action, parody, and Chinese word play.

As it was with Chan, so Chow must follow. Having conquered the Hong Kong market, the star now looks to the wider international market, and Shaolin Soccer looks very much like Chow's attempt to score a worldwide hit. The film is as polished as any Hollywood film, with lots of special effects and an easy-to-understand premise. Chow's plan, if it is that, seems to be working so far: Miramax has picked it up for distribution in the U.S. in August. (That date has jumped around quite a bit already, so don't be surprised if it changes again.)

Sure, it looks cool, but how do you
land without crippling yourself?
Chow plays a hapless freelance janitor who goes by the moniker Mighty Steel Leg. He trained at the famous Shaolin Temple and dreams of finding a way to convince the world that "Shaolin kung fu is the best," and that it may be incorporated into all aspects of life. Steel Leg's only real skill is the ability to kick really, really hard, which has not impressed the world at large. But after a chance encounter with a disgraced soccer player called Golden Leg (perennial Chow sidekick Ng Man Tat), Steel Leg realizes that his particular skill could go over well in that sport. Golden Leg agrees to coach the proposed team, and Steel Leg looks up five of his former brothers from the Shaolin Temple. All his brothers have their own super powers (as indicated by their names, like Iron Head and Empty Hands) and their own problems.

The portion of the film in which Steel Leg and Golden Leg recruit the brothers will probably be the most difficult for audiences outside the HK to enjoy. Some of these scenes belabor jokes that would have to attend Harvard for several years before they could be called stupid. One of the brothers is overweight, and has pieces of potato chips constantly stuck to his face. Another pretends to be a high-powered stockbroker even though his cell phone is a prop and he rides a bike. He tries to cover himself by constantly rambling on about technology and how busy he is. Early reports indicate that Miramax has cut nearly half an hour from the original film, and we can only suspect that these scenes comprise much of that time.

Proof that corporate sponsorship
is corrupting professional sports.
Once the Shaolin team is formed, however, the comedy falls into place and the CGI-enhanced kung-fu soccer action really kicks in to create one of the most purely enjoyable films we've seen in a while. Outside of The Matrix (to which Shaolin Soccer will be compared ad nauseum for its stellar use of CGI special effects), it's difficult to think of a movie that so meticulously shows us what super-powers might actually be like in the real world. In these soccer matches, a properly handled ball can literally rip clothing, break bones, or set the air around it alight. It's a masterpiece of film effects, and it manages to exist without a storyline involving computers, aliens, or Keanu Reeves.

This is not to say that the effects are the driving force of the film. While the visuals are astonishing, they exist to serve the story -- which is, after all, a comedy. Thus the games are also filled with small touches of the absurd and kung fu in-jokes, like the goalkeeper who gives us a credible imitation of what Bruce Lee might have been like in cleats. Chow plays to his strengths and makes sure there are plenty of character moments to show off the subtler (but no less impressive) talents of the actor-comedians he has assembled in his cast.

"Soccer balls don't hit back."
The movie culminates in a championship game with the Evil Team. No really, that's what they're called -- and in a shocking plot twist, they're evil. They also have powers that make them the equal to the Shaolin team. After having their kneepads handed to them by the Evil Team in the first half of the game, Golden Leg suspects cheating and complains, "They must take pills or have injection." (Shoddy HK subtitles strike again.) This is pretty rich coming from a guy coaching a team with a guy who can kick a ball into orbit, another guy who can fly, and a long-dead martial arts icon playing goalie. Which, now that we mention it, sounds like a recipe for making soccer a popular sport here in the States. Here's hoping the same applies to Mr. Chow's movie.
Review date: 04/29/2003

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