When I was a child, Red Skelton was one of my absolute favorite comedic performers. He wrote and performed radio and TV sketches with over the top slapstick routines in which he would contort his face into impossible forms all to make people laugh. One of the many things he was known for were his pantomimes; routines which contained absolutely no dialogue. He loved performing the pantomimes because he knew that humor was one of the few universal languages. Red Skelton performed in front of thousands of people from all over the world, he united them in laughter, and in doing so brought to light the very simple fact that every culture is more than capable of sharing the gift of laughter. Stephen Chow is a Chinese writer/director/actor that made a some waves in Hollywood a few years back by producing some highly entertaining and energetic pieces of screwball comedy. In particular Shaolin Soccer mixes the genres of martial arts epic, sports drama and slapstick comedy; following in the grand tradition laid down by Skelton and countless others.
Shaolin Soccer introduces us to Sing (or “Iron Leg” played by Stephen Chow) a young man who, after dedicating the majority of his life to the study of Shaolin Kung Fu, is trying to find a practical, non-violent way to use his gift. He comes up with the idea of using it to compete in professional soccer. After getting a has-been soccer star to agree to be their coach, he then attempts to reunite his fellow Shaolin students to convince them to pursue a common goal. Once the team is ready to compete, it becomes apparent that their biggest enemy is against the protagonists personal soccer team “Team Evil”, a group of ruthless athletes who are injected with performance enhancing (to the point of having super powers) drugs.
Chow uses physical comedy to great effect in this film. The Kung Fu that Sing and his fellow students learned is far from the real world martial arts, and seems to come straight from the screen of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While Sing attempts to recruit his brethren, we get a glimpse of just what has happened to these martial arts masters (one of whom could actually fly at one point in his career). One works cleaning toilets, one is a cook, one is a businessman, one works in a local grocery store and one is unemployed. All, with the exception of Iron Leg, have forgotten how to activate their skills. The whole training process is absolutely hilarious as we see these former masters attempt to regain their powers and play soccer at the same time. Once they do, every soccer match basically becomes a choreographed slapstick fest. We’re treated to one of the most elaborate Kung Fu movies, and all the action takes place on a soccer field. The players aren’t (for the most part) beating the tar out of each other, they’re competing in a non-violent sport.
While the premise is strong enough on it’s own to be humorous, the amount of slapstick and screwball comedy in the movie takes it up a notch. Chow wastes no time in throwing aside reality for the sake of comedy. When the team has their first practice game against a local gang, it soon becomes an all out war zone. Not much gets lost in translation, leaving plenty of laughs to be enjoyed by everyone. Chow does a great job of delivering an almost universal comedy experience that manages to lampoon quite a few genres along the way. The action is over the top and hilarious while still maintaining an exciting and adventurous pace.