It’s been a long time — you might have to go back to the Bruce Lee era — since a martial-arts film busted through the limits of physical freedom as wildly, and promiscuously, as Kung Fu Hustle, Stephen Chow’s insanely entertaining smash-fantasy burlesque. Chow, perhaps the first action star and filmmaker to be as influenced by classic cartoons as by the karate-chop balletics of human movement, directs like a gonzo fusion of Tarantino and Tex Avery. You know where every punch and kick is coming from, but it’s far less clear what will happen after they land. Bodies go flying into space, and faces get pummeled until they end up somewhere beneath the ground. At one point, two men conduct a battle by strumming notes on a stringed instrument: Each note sends forth a quasi-visible gust of air, which crests into a wave of force so sharp that it reveals itself on screen as a shower of knives. The scene creates its own nutty physics, and all of Kung Fu Hustle is like that: You don’t just watch it, you ride with it, laughing all the way.
In the world according to Chow, fighting prowess is a form of magical slapstick Zen that can come from anybody and anywhere. Take the Land-lady (Yuen Qiu), a whiny harridan in curlers who dominates the working-class ghetto of Pig Sty Alley. She’s the last character on earth you’d expect to be a martial-arts master, yet Chow works with such a screwy democratic spirit that she turns out to be just that. The chief villains, or so it appears in the leaky madhouse of what I’ll kindly call a plot, are the Axe Gang, a tribe of top-hatted brutes — inspired by Bill the Butcher’s crew in Gangs of New York — who wreak bloody havoc on Pig Sty Alley. It’s fair to think that these whirligig cutthroats have set the standard for homicidal omnipotence, but they’re pussycats next to the Beast (Leung Siu Lung), who emerges in his tacky hospital sandals, like a Dr. Lecter gone to seed, to prove that he can kill all comers. It’s up to Chow, as the poseur-turned-hero, to match him blow for mighty surreal blow. He does it in a climax of high-flying ultraviolence that will leave you gasping between giggles.