There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
The 2001 Hong Kong action-comedy Shaolin Soccer. Directed and co-written by martial arts superstar Stephen Chow, the film stars Chow as a monk named Sing, who’s inspired by an old, injured footballer to teach the world about the wonders of Shaolin kung fu via soccer. He forms a team that steamrolls the competition with over-the-top acrobatic moves and ancient superpowers, before being tested in the finals of a major tournament, where they square off against a group that’s literally called “Team Evil.”
Why watch now?
Because the World Cup final between France and Croatia is this Sunday.
When the United States’ national team was bounced from the World Cup qualifying rounds, some US soccer fans — not to mention the tournament’s Stateside broadcaster, Fox — worried that American interest in the event might be low. But while Fox’s ratings are down compared to the previous World Cup four years ago, people across the country are still filling bars and sharing enthusiasm on social media whenever the games are on. The sport has definitely developed a fervent following in the States, even though it still lags behind the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB.
Just imagine how popular soccer would be if the players could kick the ball so hard that they set it on fire or knock the goalies through the back of the net. Shaolin Soccer presents a fantasy version of the sport that resembles a modern video game, with special moves and power-ups that allow teams to run up the score. Sing is nicknamed “Mighty Steel Leg” for his super fast, super strong shots on goal. He plays alongside “Iron Head” and “Iron Shirt,” who can absorb the impacts of forcefully struck balls and redirect them (with their head and torso, respectively). He relies on a goalie called “Lightning Hand,” who has Bruce Lee’s mannerisms, agility, and yellow bodysuit.
What’s most fun about Shaolin Soccer is that Chow never overestimates his movie’s main attraction: characters performing impossible kicks and spins. Roughly half the film takes place on the field, where opponents play a turbocharged version of one of the world’s most beloved games. The action doesn’t stop until the final whistle.
Who it’s for
Martial arts buffs, sports fans, and pretty much anyone who enjoys watching athletic individuals perform amazing stunts.
The genius of Shaolin Soccer is Chow’s realization that there isn’t a huge difference between the arcs of the classic “young martial artist in training” movie and the typical American underdog sports melodrama. Like a cross between Drunken Master and The Bad News Bears, Shaolin Soccer brings together a ragtag band of monks and misfits and has them learn to trust in themselves (and their awesome kung fu) to best a team that’s been supplied with cutting-edge performance-enhancing drugs from the United States. (Picture Rocky IV, except this time, the Americans are the technocratic evil empire.) All the while, the hero builds a friendship, bordering on romance, with a shy baker who’s skilled at tai chi.
The limberness of Chow’s cast is incredible, which more than compensates for those times when the special effects in Shaolin Soccer aren’t up to the standards of a modern Hollywood blockbuster… or even the best of Chinese cinema. Unlike the graceful wire-fu leaps in wuxia classics like Hero or the realistic digital creatures in the Jurassic Park series, Shaolin Soccer’s superheroics are sometimes cheap and cartoonish. (Case in point: a scene where a ball bursts into fake-looking flames, which then transforms into an equally cheesy roaring tiger.)
But the occasional clunkiness only makes the sheer number of stunts and effects in this movie more impressive. Chow doesn’t let technical limitations keep him from including every wild idea that pops into his head, whether it’s a shot of Iron Shirt carrying a ball down the field with his phenomenal belly or a member of Team Evil drawing so deeply on the powers of darkness that he turns the clouds in the sky into a menacing dragon’s head. This film is overflowing with imagination. It’s for all the boys and girls who ever spent tedious preadolescent afternoons at soccer practice, thinking, “You know what would be cool...”
Where to see it
TubiTV. The service is free (supported by occasional ad breaks), and it currently features a number of excellent martial arts films, like Ong Bak and Jackie Chan’s Project A. For those who are willing to pay a few bucks in order to avoid ads, Shaolin Soccer is also available to rent or buy from major digital retailers like iTunes and Amazon.