Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Too Cool to Kill

You probably don't want me on your movie trivia team; as much as I've watched a lot of movies and retained a fair amount of them, it's not exactly organized well in my head. Someone will ask me a question and I'll go to IMDB because they've got a whole team of professionals building indices for that stuff. Same goes for baseball, music, etc; I feel like I say "heck if I know" a lot more often than most people prone (or expected) to know stuff.

Despite that, I will often watch a remake of something I saw some years ago and think "huh, I've heard that joke before" and have it dawn on me that I had seen a whole lot more than that. It's kind of an odd hazard of going to genre fests and then seeing various film industries grow to the point where you can localize things rather than just import them, even across relatively short distances (physical and cultural) as Hong Kong and South Korea. It's kind of interesting to me that this didn't happen at any point during Too Cool to Kill; I was genuinely surprised to see that this was my second time through. Sure, it's been 12+ years, but my review from the time has me really, really liking The Magic Hour, and a number of scenes in Too Cool to Kill are just so clever that I figure they would ring a bell.

Maybe that's a sign that Xing Wenxiong did an unusually good job of reworking the concept into a new movie. I wish I could find out, but The Magic Hour is frustratingly unavailable; although I was kind of surprised to see that Japanese Blu-ray included English subtitles when it was released. Of course, it was listed as a "special edition" and as such probably retailed for $180 or so, significantly more than Well Go will charge for this one.

Zhe ge sha shou bu tai leng jing (Too Cool to Kill)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2022 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

I'm not sure what it means that, upon seeing Too Cool to Kill was a remake of a Japanese film in the closing credits, I went searching it out for comparison's sake and discovered that I had, in fact, seen and liked it twelve years ago. Revisiting that review, it certainly looks like writer/director Xing Wenxiong has remixed Koki Mitani's original enough to make the new version worth seeing, and an apparent hit during the recent Lunar New Year holidays.

It opens with master assassin Karl (Ai Lun) attempting to kill gangster Harvey (Chen Minghao), but slipping up and ending up in a local hospital. Harvey, meanwhile, has other concerns, like how Milan (Ma Li), the actress in a movie he is financing, does not return his affection, and the last movie he financed with her and her director brother Miller (Huang Cailun) didn't make back its budget. She ad-libs their way out of cement shoes by saying she knows Karl, he's a fan, but winds up with just one day to produce him. To buy enough time to get on a cargo ship out of the country, Milan and Miller convince Wei Chenggong (Wei Xiang), a take-ruining extra, to pose as Karl - but also tell him that he's taking part in an improvised movie. It should get Wei killed, but his unpredictable choices lead to Harvey inviting "Karl" to join the gang, though second-in-command Jimmy (Zhou Dayong) is far from enthused about the new guy.

Too Cool to Kill isn't quite a one-joke movie, but it milks its unlikely premise so well that it is a long time before it even comes close to running out of steam. Director Xing finds a smart balance between how Wei is fearless as an actor while Harvey is already terrified of Karl that sort of counter-balances how Wei's crashing through a snake pit should have him dead within minutes, and the way Ma Li plays cool movie-star poise against Huang Cailun's panicky control freak of a brother keeps things just steady enough that the rest doesn't fall over. The result is a movie that's self-assured enough to resist the temptation to change things up when that might be the easy way to hammer something home, like when Wei decides Karl should break the fourth wall. The easy thing to do might be to cut between how Wei sees this and how Harvey does, but Xing instead keeps both points of view in the same frame.

Indeed, it's something close to pure screwball, quick with its gags and able to hammer at one so that the repetition is funny and implausible but not quite to the breaking point. Part of the reason this works is that Xing et al get the audience into a spot where its heightened take on everything feels right, starting right from the setting . From the first shot, it's clearly insular apart from the rest of the world - a circle with 270 degrees of seashore and trees behind the other 90, with all the main buildings on a ring road rather than something that might lead out of town. "Lying Town", as the place is named, looks more like a European seaside community than a Chinese one (down to the English-language signage), and where The Magic Hour specifically states that it takes place in a picturesque town that is often used as a movie set, Lying Town could be a studio creation where the hotel rooms are functional. Everybody here is acting in a way; some just don't know how many layers deep their performance is.

From a speech he gives to the crew that's shown as part of the end credits, the film is also meta in that star Wei Xiang has been a supporting actor, often in very minor roles, until this film, so he apparently knows the desire to grab this opportunity to move up. He's got a tendency to play his part like a scene-stealer without quite hamming it up except when the character is doing that, and on top of having great comic timing, it also makes the audience feel like he's this guy who kind of doesn't belong in the middle of the story. As Malin and Miller, Ma Li and Huang Cailun feel like they're the movie's stars, and they drive the story, but wind up providing solid support, landing their own gags and keeping things moving. Chen Minghao and Zhou Dayong both manage some impressive exasperation.

As with its predecessor, Too Cool to Kill made me laugh a lot more than I was expecting, especially after a trailer that suggested the movie would be incoherent desperation, or maybe made up of jokes that don't translate from Mandarin. Instead, it's a comedy that works whether one has seen (or remembers) the original or not.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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