Right around the turn of the century, this crazy genius from Hong Kong named Stephen Chow decided—after a lifetime of enjoying Buster Keaton movies, American cartoons and Japanese anime, and taught himself martial arts by imitating Bruce Lee movies—that he would make a movie about a bunch of dejected Shaolin monks who would band together one last time to apply their superhuman martial arts skills to the sport of soccer. The idea was that they would enter a soccer tournament, win the whole thing, give their sad sack of a coach some much-needed redemption, and along the way, introduce Shaolin kung fu to the whole, wide world. Sounds crazy, right? Yeah, I know. When I first saw the trailer for this thing, I thought I was hallucinating, because no world I knew was so glorious and grand to give me an over-the-top martial arts sports movie about soccer. But that’s what happened, and the result was Shaolin Soccer.
This movie does what it says on the tin: an ex-Shaolin monk named Sing teams with a disgraced soccer coach named Fung, reuinites his old Shaolin buddies, gets them to awaken their martial arts powers once more, and together, they turn the world of soccer upside down. Along the way, we run afoul of Team Evil, the reigning champions, coached by the corrupt soccer mogul Hung. These guys are so ‘roided out that they have powers even greater than Team Shaolin—which is saying something, because the entire movie, our Shaolin heroes fly through the air, intercept balls with their stomachs, kick balls into orbit, shake off incredible punishment, and more. When all seems lost, Sing turns to his love interest Mui, a shy young woman who practices tai chi and uses her martial arts powers to make dumplings at a local food stand, under the watchful eye of her abusive boss. Mui eventually finds her courage, shaves her head, and joins Team Shaolin on the pitch in a rousing finale that is a bonkers spectacle of CGI, martial arts mayhem, and a soccer ball kicked with such ferocity that it blows the back end off the entire stadium.
I have spoiled nothing for you by basically telling you the entire movie. This is a movie that has to be seen to be believed. Now, the ideal way to appreciate this one is to go into it cold, so you can appreciate the shock and awe of a movie so insanely ambitious as to bring to the table what it brings to the table. But since you know what it’s about now, try to look at it this way: Shaolin Soccer is the passion project of a guy who has such an enthusiastic and genuine love for supergeek entertainment that he made a movie that really doesn’t care how ridiculous you think it is. It’s a movie that knows that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who can appreciate watching a goalie get his clothes blasted off by an intense shot on goal, and those who can’t. If you’re in the first camp, well, then Shaolin Soccer is the best thing you haven’t seen yet. You’re welcome. If you’re in the second camp, well, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done for you. Better luck in the next life.
One of my favorite moments in Shaolin Soccer is when Sing first displays to Coach Fung why they call him Iron Leg, and he grabs a can and kicks in the air. We watch it go higher and higher until it vanishes, and that’s when Iron Leg admits that maybe he’s got a problem regulating how much power is in his kick. A few scenes later, Coach Fung is walking around town and he finds Sing’s can embedded into a brick wall. The damned thing came back to earth with the force of a meteor, and somehow, that is what convinces Fung to take Sing on as his coach. It doesn’t make a lick of sense except within the world of Shaolin Soccer, which sets up this absurd set of ground rules and then plays within them so perfectly that by the time you’re seeing flying midfielders and cross-dressing female soccer squads and whatever else, you’re okay with it. You are under the movie’s spell. And isn’t that what any great movie is supposed to do?
The moment of truth in this movie is when Mui finally comes onto the pitch after a dramatic entrance that ends with a moment of such perfect comedic timing that it embodies what this movies is all about. It’s equal parts goofy, kinetic humor, an open subversion of every expectation we can get from both a martial arts movie and an underdog sports movie, and it’s a story with a weird kind of heart. Ultimately, you kind of care for these weird misfits so that when each gets their moment, it feels like a decent payoff. To accomplish that in a movie like this is quite a feat, indeed.
One more thing: something deeply admirable about Shaolin Soccer is how scrappy it is. This movie was made on a relative shoestring, and it kind of shows. Most of the money went to the CGI, and the whole thing feels like the best effort of a second-string production studio. But you know what? There is such love and heart in this movie that its rough edges do not detract from the end product. If anything, they add to it, because there isn’t a cynical frame in this picture. Whatever Shaolin Soccer’s faults may be, it isn’t a lack of enthusiasm, because these guys clearly set out to make the world’s best kung fu soccer movie, as if there were a hundred other ones to beat for the title. There isn’t, but don’t tell Stephen Chow that. Let’s keep him in the dark and see what he does next.