Shaolin Soccer

Shaolin Soccer. Star Overseas 2001.

Before watching the movie:

I know there must be a whole range of movies about applying martial arts to unusual activities, but I can’t come up with any others off the top of my head. Jackie Chan has probably made five of them. Maybe the training sequence in The Karate Kid counts?

This is maybe one of the highest-profile ones. I dimly remember being aware of its release, but it at best ranked “vaguely interesting”, which wasn’t nearly enough draw to get me to try to see it.

After watching the movie:

Twenty years ago, Golden Leg Fung got talked into missing a goal in a major soccer final, and in the ensuing riot his career-making leg was broken by the mob, crippling him for life. Now, Fung works as a flunky for Hung, rival star player turned star coach, the man who got him to throw the game (and paid the mob to break his leg). Fung hopes to coach a team of his own, under Hung, but instead Hung fires him. On the street, he meets Mighty Steel Leg Sing, a former Shaolin monk scrounging for a living since his master died. When Fung sees Sing’s powerful kicks applied to a soccer ball, he suggests Sing and his old Shaolin brothers reunite to ply their kung fu skills in the big million-dollar open-registration pro soccer tournament. They’ve all moved on to their own lives, but those lives are awful and they’d rather play soccer for money. By the end of the tournament, they’ll have to face the team Hung coaches, Team Evil, and Hung doesn’t play fair.

I was expecting a comedy (even though the listing didn’t say it was one), but I was surprised by how over the top it is. This is a live action anime. A lot of stunts are beyond superhuman, and the humor is often melodrama raised to a parodic degree. How serious can a movie with a team of opponents called “Team Evil” be?

The CGI effects are surprisingly well done for any early 2000s movie, let alone one where most of the action sequences are depicting clearly impossible things in a photoreal style. Perhaps the brazen tone allows it to be viewed with a more forgiving eye, but I don’t think those effects would look out of place today. I’m pretty sure the version I saw had computer edits changing on screen text to English (though the original Chinese dialogue was retained and subtitled), and if that’s the case, there are some really impressive touches in some of those shots. It’s possible that they really did shoot English language insets, but they look a little disconnected from the rest of the shot.

The backstory being told up front makes it feel like it’s going to be Fung’s story, but then he ends up only being the catalyst for the team to get in motion. Sing is the protagonist, and that’s clear by the time he meets his major love interest. Fung doesn’t steal the spotlight from the team the movie is about like John Candy in Cool Runnings (which I do like, but it does put maybe a bit too much emphasis on his character).

It takes a lot of effects work to make a live action cartoon, and the effects have risen to make this vaguely soccer-like game exciting to watch, if nonsensical. At the end of the game, what matters is we had fun.

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