Rollerblading to school Hong Kong teenager Se Mou (Jimmy Lin Zhi-Ying) is lovestruck when beautiful Annie (Vivian Hsu) drives by. A cartoon Cupid shoots a love arrow into his heart but gets swatted aside by Annie's bullish boyfriend, Iron Eagle (Cheung Yan-Juk) who also happens to be the pampered son of mean-spirited Assistant Principal Te (Paul Chun Pui). Life at home is no picnic for Se Mou. His parents never stop arguing and he is the butt of endless pranks played by his obnoxious fat four year old brother Sou An (Kok Siu-Man). While Se Mou fails to spot that his tomboy best friend Pearl (Hilary Tsui Ho-Ying) loves him deeply, his attempt to court Annie goes calamitously awry when he is beaten shitless by Iron Eagle. Things change when the family take a trip to China where they meet Li Lin Kit (Sik Siu-Lung), a child monk with mystical kung fu skills.
The teen rom-coms and kiddie comedies of John Hughes influenced Taiwanese schlockmeister Chu Yen Ping to make Shaolin Popeye which has nothing to do with the classic cartoon spinach-loving sailor man (the title actually appears onscreen as Shaolin Popey but is misspelled on video sleeves so often it stuck) and, for the first forty minutes at least, plays like a pastiche of familiar Hughes motifs from Sixteen Candles (1984) to Home Alone (1990). Ostensibly a vehicle for Cantopop heart-throb Jimmy Lin, the film's teen romance plot did not grip Hong Kong audiences quite as much as the slapstick antics of child stars Kok Siu-Man and Sik Siu-Lung. Having had previous success with another group of kung fu kids in (what else?) Kung Fu Kids (1986), Chu Yen Ping knew he was onto a good thing. He immediately reteamed the diminutive duo in several sequels opposite comely co-star Vivian Hsu who likewise captured the hearts of filmgoers even though the plot is angled towards plain jane Hilary Tsui Ho-Ying. Frankly the message about learning to value true love above good looks ends up a little muddled given both Se Mou and Pearl behave uncharitably towards two other geeky admirers.
Set to a score straight out of a vintage Tom and Jerry cartoon complete with comedy sound effects, Kok Siu-Man's crass humour treads a very fine line between mischievous and just plain annoying. He shoves firecrackers in his brother's bed, whines incessantly, screams in people's ears and flirts with an array of four year old girls in scenes presumably meant to be cute but which come across as plain gross. By contrast Sik Siu Lung's wire fu action sequences prove genuinely amusing. It is quite fun to watch the six year old bash the hell out of bad guys like British martial artist Mark Houghton. Siu Lung really was a child disciple at a Shaolin Temple. Born Chen Xiaolong in Henan, China he performed opposite Kok Siu-Man and Vivian Hsu in the sequels Shaolin Popeye II: Messy Temple (1994) and Super Mischievous (1995) as well as imitations Adventurous Treasure Island (1996) and Heavenly Legend (1999) before briefly retiring from movies to study in New York. Upon returning to Hong Kong in 2005 he resumed acting under the new stage name of Ashton Chen Xiao Long in movies like Ip Man 2 (2010). While Vivian Hsu made the leap from teen pin-up to bigger roles in more accomplished movies, Kok Siu-Man never quite pulled off the transition to grownup stardom but remained a perennial comedy fat guy in numerous films including a late entry in the series: Shaolin – Let's Go (2003).
After forty minutes of Jimmy moping his way through musical montages in typically schizophrenic Hong Kong cinema fashion, once the family head to China this becomes an entirely different movie. In essence a parody of every Shaolin kung fu ever made from 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) to Shaolin Temple (1986) as Jimmy trains with weights strapped to his legs, learns to catch flies with chopsticks and, er, chop wood only with a little kid as his master instead of the traditional wizened old man. When he returns home the plot rearranges itself again as we discover Assistant Principal Te is forcing Iron Eagle to court Annie so he can steal her grandfather's land. Everyone settles things with a game of baseball which is not where this story first seemed to be heading but there you go. That's Hong Kong movies for you. Yen Ping throws in an extended Home Alone homage/rip-off only with more exciting kung fu action and resolves the love triangle in predictable fashion but Shaolin Popeye remains less fondly remembered than its nutty sequel.