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I guess now that soccer is gaining popularity in the United States as it had already in most of the civilized world, it's not too inconceivable that we might get a soccer movie or two making waves here in America. But while critics were gushing about the 2002 indie BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, Miramax was busy importing Hong Kong's most successful movie to date, SHAOLIN SOCCER. And thank God they did, because this movie rocks.
The main purpose of the cinematic medium is to entertain. This result can be achieved in many ways, and in a film like SHAOLIN SOCCER, it can be achieved in just about all of them at once. This action-comedy pays homage to classic martial arts films, fumbling underdog sports movies, and even Hollywood musicals in its attempt to create one of the most clever and fun films to grace a movie screen in quite some time.
The film starts off with a brief backstory of our main character, Fung. A soccer star in his youth known as "Golden Leg", he threw a game for the benefit of Hung, one of his calculating teammates. Yeah, you're going to have to keep up with which one's Hung and which one's Fung, because they're only referred to by those names. After missing the important final goal, Fung is attacked by an angry mob and his "Golden Leg" is rendered useless. Fast forward years later, and Fung is working as a lackey to Hung, who is now head honcho of the National Soccer League. But Fung only desires to coach a team of his own.
Fung has a chance encounter with an impoverished Shaolin King Fu Master named Sing, who is trying to convince Fung that Shaolin can be an important part of everyday life. But Fung ain't buying it. At least, not until he sees Sing dispose of a gang of thugs with a soccer ball from an alleyway one day. Fung convinces Sing to become the first player on his soccer team, and gets Sing to recruit five other "brothers" from his Shaolin training. Sing, or "Mighty Steel Leg" as he is known due to his kicking power, is forced to do a little coaxing to get the rest of the team willing to play. One brother, "Iron Head", is an out-of-shape nightclub employee now. One of the brothers fancies himself as an out-of-work businessman. The "Smallest Brother" has ballooned in weight and is ravenous for food. But eventually, the brothers come around, and they begin to train for the national soccer tournament.
In order to win the tourney, they'll have to get past Team Evil, which is not only Hung's pet team of genetically-enhanced players, but is also the name I've been using for my trivia teams lately. But they've got a long way to go, because the Shaolin Soccer team make the Bad News Bears look like a threat at first. But through intense training and by a sudden channeling of their desires to succeed, Team Shaolin is ready for the big time.
Along the way, Sing has met a young lady named Mui who he fancies. Mui, who covers her pockmarked face with a wisp of hair, makes sweet rolls at a street vendor. She catches Sing's eye by utilizing some kung fu of her own in order to prepare her confections. While she's shy to his advances and his flattery, Mui quickly falls for him as well. But as Sing and the Shaolin Soccer team advances in the tournament, he gets a bit of an ego that looks to drive Mui away from him.
The real highlight to all of this is the actual soccer games, which resemble soccer games that you and I know in name alone. The Shaolin team use their martial artistry to send balls flying at ridiculous velocity, creating shock waves and flames and all sorts of other fantastic special effects in the process. It's really impossible to describe, and it's definitely worth the price of admission just to see the games being played. Sure, the structure of the games defy all logic and rules of play. Whole teams line up to take shots on a single goalie in a brilliant homage to Bruce Lee, while the goalie's teammates are nowhere to be found. Nobody calls "offsides" either. But it's amazingly fun stuff to watch regardless of that fact.
Sure, it's all predictable stuff. You know what's going to happen as soon as you're introduced to the main characters. Sports movies in general only have so much wiggle room for plot, and this one doesn't fall too far from the general "ragtag bunch of misfits climb the ladder to win the big one" motif. But you'll be too busy laughing your ass off and being wowed at the special effects that you won't care.
And like I said before, it's chock full of homages to both Eastern and Western cinema. This is definitely a film made by a film buff. Director Stephen Chow, who also plays the role of Sing, has certainly been doing his homework. For the most part, this is a big-time martial arts movie wrapped up with a sports gimmick, but there are all sorts of elements that help complete it. Characters stop what they're doing to line up in elaborate musical sequences that would make Rogers and Hammerstein proud. There are allusions to Spielberg's work in a few spots as well, A ripple in a glass of water jumps right from the frames of JURASSIC PARK, and Sing says to a freshly-delocked Mui that she "looks like E.T.". Oh, and the film's bound to draw comparisons to THE MATRIX due to some similair special effects techniques and the martial arts motif, but Chow kicks the Wachowski brothers' asses all over the place, and he does it without having to resort to sounding like a second-rate Confucious in the process.
Miramax apparently cut almost a half hour from the film for its U.S. release, which makes me interested in tracking down the original Hong Kong version to see what's missing. SHAOLIN SOCCER is definitely recommended material for anyone who loves movies for all the right reasons.
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