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Football Film Thursdays: Shaolin Soccer

@GameofThrowIns returns with his second football film review.

How do you feel when you watch clips of Roberto Baggio's penalty miss at USA 94? Joyous if you're Brazilian, but otherwise it's a pretty heartbreaking event to witness. Now imagine it's 1983 and instead of Brazil vs Italy it's Team Evil vs Team Fixers (not a traditional protagonist name, but stick with it). It's 5-4 in the penalty shoot-out of the China Super Cup and Fixers' star player 'Golden Leg' is stepping up to send it to sudden death. He blasts it over the bar. Then the fans invade the pitch and snap his leg in two. Baggio got off pretty easy, eh? But that's the back story for Stephen Chow's gloriously crazy Shaolin Soccer.

Don't believe me? Just check out the trailer:

Fast forward to the present day and Golden Leg, who never seemed to seek medical advice over his injury, is desperate to manage his own team. He's helping out with the coaching over at Team Evil with an old friend who refuses to fulfil his request. Frustrated by the lack of career prospects in his current job he forms his own team, hoping to prove his worth once again. Our protagonist then meets a homeless Shaolin Kung Fu master, who impresses him by volleying an empty soda can into orbit followed by chipping a fridge onto the top of a rubbish heap. As you do. With his new comrade by his side he has the first player for his breakaway squad, Team Shaolin.

The team quickly expands with several more Shaolin practicers as well as some local bullies whose attempts of intimidation backfire and in the shadow of defeat join Team Shaolin. The training regime is almost the polar opposite of anything Rocky Balboa did. PASS, DRIBBLE, HOLD, SHOOT. Those are the instructions given to the players by Golden Leg when it becomes apparent that many of them may have never played football before. But soon it all falls into place.

They start unsuccessfully training with eggs, then slam the ball against a wall and before you know it they're ready for the tournament. Their unique brand of aerial tika-taka and ability to fly means they dispatch of everyone in the tournament with relative ease until the reach the final, where they of course meet Team Evil.

Their opponents' hiearchy have been putting the players through some sort of horrible boot camp to turn them into super soldiers, a bit like Germany's post Euro 2000 revolution, but much scarier. The final is actually quite a tense affair. There's a lot of fire and a couple of mini tornadoes, but I won't spoil the result for you.

Released in Hong Kong a year before China's first and only appearance in the World Cup finals, it soon became Hong Kong's highest grossing film of all-time (that is until director Stephen Chow's next film Kung Fu Hustle came along) and was subsequently banned in China because the director didn't apply for permission to show the film publicly. Hanging would be too good for him.

It's the same formula you'll see a thousand times in sports films, but that doesn't make it any less enthralling. One of the players gets booked, for smoking, before kick-off. It's absolutely mad, and it's completely great. Everyone should watch this immediately.

Verdict: 4/5