Stephen Chow has been a top star in Hong Kong for many years now, starring in one crowdpleasing comedy after another, but this blockbuster smashed all previous records for HK productions.
Twenty years ago, Golden Leg Fung was an arrogant soccer star who treated his teammate Hung like dirt. Then Hung arranged a little "incident" in which Fung missed an important shot and hooligans rushed out of the stands to break his legs. Now, Hung (Patrick Tse) is the arrogant and cruel head coach of the champion Evil Team, and he keeps the crippled Fung (ace character actor Ng ManTat) around just to abuse. Fung meets a street cleaner named Sing (Chow), who is also an advanced kung fu student known as Shaolin Orthodox School Mighty Steel Leg. Sing is looking for ways to package Shaolin kung fu for the modern consumer, perhaps through song and dance. Fung has a better idea: he wants to form a new soccer team made up of Sing's Shaolin brothers to enter the national tournament. Sing's five brothers have become very out of shape since their master died years ago, but Fung's coaching at least gives them some of the fundamentals. When Fung sets the team up with a match against a disreputable amateur team, it looks like they'll be handed a painful and humiliating defeat, but Sing's spirit helps them all regain their Shaolin chi. Hung is so amused by the ragtag appearance of Fung's team that he helps get them in the tournament, if only so he can get a laugh at their expense. But using their super kung fu (provided by the Centro f/x house), the Shaolin Team advances through the ranks and looks to be unstoppable. Meanwhile, Sing meets scarfaced baker Mui (Vicki Zhao), who uses advanced Tai Chi to make steamed bread in a street stand, and they begin a bumpy romance. Making their way past the bearded girls team Double Handsome Dragons (including guest stars Karen Mok and Cecilia Cheung), the Shaolin team makes it into the finals. But will their kung fu skills be able to beat Hung's Evil Team? Their players are all genetically altered by "American medication" into supermen, and to make matters worse, Hung has bribed all the officials!
Combining Chow's nonsense style of comedy with the kind of special effects that powered HK hits STORM RIDERS and A MAN CALLED HERO may seem like a mismatch. Nitpickers may say that the f/x overshadow the gags. But this is a straightforward story of good versus evil, embodying many of the themes that Chow has been using throughout his career. Idolizing Bruce Lee, he envisions a world in hilariously exaggerated style in which practicing kung fu can make everyone's lives better, and Chow is the only film star today who uses his films to directly promote martial arts. The Mighty Steel Leg is not far from his protagonist's attributes in FIST OF FURY 1991. His KING OF BEGGARS featured characters with supernatural kung fu ability, and SIXTY MILLION DOLLAR MAN was an earlier experiment with mixing f/x with comedy. But Chow's cinematic abilities (assisted by "executive director" and longtime collaborator Lee LikChi) and f/x technology have both improved tremendously during the preceding decade, and SHAOLIN SOCCER benefits from both. In spirit, it's not unlike his early hits like LEGEND OF THE DRAGON the talents involved have just matured. And leave it to Stephen Chow to find another new twist to slipping on a banana peel. A uniquely Chinese superhero comedy, SHAOLIN SOCCER is supremely entertaining from start to finish.
Western Chow fans that experienced SHAOLIN SOCCER via import DVDs were apprehensive when Miramax bought the US distribution rights, since the studio had previously mangled the Jackie Chan films under their control. That apprehension turned to anger as rumors circulated that Miramax was editing the film heavily, replacing the soundtrack with hiphop music, and even changing the title to KUNG FU SOCCER! A day didn't go by that didn't see a vicious diatribe against Miramax and parent company Disney appearing on one internet bulletin board or another. All this controversy and protest seems to have had some effect. Secondguessing their plans, the studio pushed back the theatrical release date again and again, in the meantime cutting back on their planned changes. When finally given a limited release in the spring of 2004, SHAOLIN SOCCER lacked 23 minutes of running time, and opening with little or no advertising, quickly disappeared from theaters.
The US version of SHAOLIN SOCCER is not a bad film, and viewers who hadn't seen the original generally say they completely enjoyed it and don't know what all the fuss is about. Fortunately, Miramax didn't destroy the film in "adapting" it for US audiences, only weakened it greatly. The English dubbing isn't bad, but can't equal the Chinese vocal performances. And the editing has removed many gags and character nuances from the plot that make the original stronger. For example, the US cut has Hung betray Golden Leg to advance his own ends, without the added motivation of revenge, removing Fung's quest for redemption from the story. In Chinese, Sing calls Fung a "cripple", while in English he's merely "handicapped". And now Team Evil's powers come from "special training", not "American drugs" a wimpy softening of the satire. On the other hand, Miramax has thoughtfully digitally translated Chinese writing into English on signs and notes, the basic structure of the film is intact, and they've even included a bit of footage left out of the HK theatrical version. They've replaced the title sequence with a more generic one, but outside of dropping in a couple of dance pop standards and a lame rap remix of "Kung Fu Fighting" over the end credits (replacing Chow's own song), for the most part left they've Raymond Wong's music intact. Oh, and they've dropped Chow's blooper reel from the end completely. For those that are illiterate or just don't like to read subtitles, the US version is adequate.
But Miramax, for once taking their criticism to heart, has decided to let US DVD viewers have their cake and eat it, too. Since the Chinese version is so obviously what viewers really want, they've decided to include the original 112minute version on the same disc. This is the recommended version of the film, as it's better in every way. Both versions feature very good transfers, despite including two features on one side of a disc. Both have solid Dolby audio mixes, with the US version also containing a French track and, oddly enough, a Cantonese one. The Chinese version is intact, lacking only some extra scenes included on import DVDs. The English subtitles are very legible and include translations of signs. However, there are no subs for characters' internal dialogue or the outtakes reel. Another disappointment is the lack of any extras not even a trailer. It might've been nice to have a commentrak by one of the English speaking participants, but considering how often Asian films have been roughed up by US distributors in the past, Asian film fans are still at the stage where they have to give thanks whenever these movies are given any respectful treatment.
In conclusion, we can only hope that US studios like Miramax that take an interest in foreign films will learn a lesson from this. In the past few years, the only two Chinese films to ever be given a wide American theatrical release in their original language have both been huge financial and critical hits. Maybe next time they'll save themselves the wasted editing costs and let great films like SHAOLIN SOCCER succeed or fail in the American market on their own virtues, rather than trying to guild the lilies.
Longtime Hong Kong comic Stephen Chow, who's known for parodying numerous Eastern and Western films and TV shows (IRON CHEF, TERMINATOR 2, PSYCHO, PRETTY WOMAN, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA) finally made a name for himself in the West when Miramax Film's launched his 2002 blockbuster hit SHAOLIN SOCCER, which combined the sport with groundbreaking CGI effects, action kungfu and humor.
Chow's creativity of combining these elements came into play with the help of today's CGI/digital effects to create astonishing action sequences. He enlisted the aid of visionary action choreographer 'Tony' Ching SiuTung (HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, IN THE NAME OF THE KING) to help provide a stylized twist to the film's action fight sequences.
The film delivered lots of athletic stunt work, acrobatics kungfu, and some references to famous figures that will appeal to American audiences such as a Bruce Lee reference, classic disco music and dancing. The CGI sound effects, and fights boosted up the entertainment value of the film which would later earn it Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Design, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
The kickoff of the film starts in a flashback scene with "Golden Leg" Fung, a well respected soccer player who's fame goes downhill when he misses a crucial shot that lead angry fans to beating and crippling him. Flashfoward to the present where a much older Fung (Ng ManTat FIST OF THE RED DRAGON) meets a former Shaolin monk named "Mighty Steel Leg" Sing (Stephen Chow) and witnesses his supernatural kicking skills. Impressed with Sing's ability, Fung joins Sing to form the ultimate Soccer team in hopes to regaining his lost honor and glory. Sing gathers his Shaolin brothers, each possessing their own supernatural specialties, and prepare themselves to compete in a soccer championship. They work their way up to the finals and defeat the unstoppable "Team Evil" for the u