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SPEED DIAL
STEPHEN CHOW CALLS UP NONSTOP ACTION IN 'KUNG FU HUSTLE'

KUNG FU HUSTLE ***
STARRING: Stephen Chow, Wah Yuen and Qiu Yuen

DIRECTOR: Stephen Chow

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

RATING: R for sequences of strong stylized action and violence

THE LOWDOWN: A kung fu comic extravaganza that pits plucky slumlords against an evil gang of ax-wielding criminals. In Mandarin with English subtitles.

"In the world of kung fu," says the main villain in "Kung Fu Hustle," pinching a bullet from midair nanoseconds before it hits his head, "speed defines the winner."

Stephen Chow, the director and star of this wildly successful (at least in Hong Kong) film, knows this better than anyone. But in his second film to be released in the United States, Chow doesn't stop with lightning-fast kung fu action. He adds a goofy comic sensibility, a collection of well-placed tributes to his predecessors and a cast and crew that rivals that of the most serious martial arts films of recent years.

The characters aren't well-developed, and there's an overdependence on special effects, but mostly that doesn't matter. As soon as we figure out good versus bad (which takes about five seconds), the rest of the film rockets along from one fight sequence to the next. And with Yuen Wo Ping, the fight choreographer from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "The Matrix" films, and cinematographer Poon Hang Sang of John Woo fame, the cartoons are extremely well-drawn.

After a rousing 10-minute introduction that rivals even the absurd opening of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," it becomes clear that there is a classic game of the strong preying on the weak. The strong in this case are a group of suited rebels called the Axe Gang, who are drawn into a conflict in a small slum called Pig Sty Alley, run by a nasty couple known only as Landlord and Landlady.

Chow plays Sing, a goofy young man with aspirations of becoming an Axe gangster.

In one scene, we see the simultaneous kicks of Landlord and Landlady fall on the top and bottom of the skull of the Beast (the one who caught the bullet in midair) from opposite sides, his face rippling in slow-mo from the blows.

If this all sounds like meaningless violence, it is, but it is incredibly fun to watch. And after a string of more serious martial arts films, it might be just what we need.