Associated Press</i>
Stephen Chow plays for an underdog soccer team that uses the martial arts of the Shaolin monks to defeat opponents in "Shaolin Soccer."
SHAOLIN SOCCER — *** 1/2 — Stephen Chow, Vicky Zhao, Man Tat Ng; in Cantonese, with English subtitles; rated PG-13 (violence, vulgarity, brief drugs, profanity, brief partial nudity).

"Shaolin Soccer" isn't any less cartoony than "Kung-Fu Hustle," the current hit by the same director and star, Stephen Chow. If anything, it's even more over the top.

The only discernible difference between the two films is that "Soccer" is considerably less mean-spirited than "Hustle," and not just in tone. Its violence is not nearly as brutal, bone-breaking or physically wearying.

It's up to audiences to decide which is more enjoyable, though fans of sports films will probably be more inclined to lean toward "Soccer," which parodies that genre with energy, style and good humor. (This version of the film is commonly referred to as the "Miram-axe" cut by its critics, referring to U.S. distributor, Miramax Films, but it's shorter and more quickly paced, which is not necessarily a bad thing.)

Chow stars as "Steel Leg" Sing, an impoverished martial artist who impresses disgraced former soccer star "Golden Leg" Fung (Man Tat Ng) with his kicking skills. As it turns out, Fung is recruiting members for a team so he can seek revenge on his longtime nemesis, Hung (Patrick Tse).

And they'll need to use all of Sing's skills if they're going to combat Hung's Team Evil, which is the favorite in the World Soccer Championship. And fortunately, most of Sing's once-estranged friends have agreed to join the heroic team as well.

The person who may tip the scales in their favor, though, is Mui (Vicky Zhao), the emotionally and physically scarred sticky-bun baker with perfect balance. Unfortunately, she and Sing have had a falling out.

Like "Hustle," this film heavily employs CGI-animated effects, some of which are, believe it or not, more convincing than those in the newest "Star Wars" prequel (and done for considerably less money).

Chow keeps things moving so fast that if you blink you'll miss some funny parody or homage; don't miss the weird dance riff on Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

None of this is meant to be taken seriously or even thought about. So just turn off your brain and enjoy the silliness.

"Shaolin Soccer" is rated PG-13 for scenes of comic violence (martial-arts, athletic and some slapstick), some vulgar humor and references to bodily functions, brief drug content (references to chemical "enhancements"), scattered use of profanity and some brief, partial male nudity. Running time: 89 minutes.