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Agent Mr. Chan
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by Jay Seaver

"Not exactly licensed to thrill."
3 stars

The taller for "Agent Mr. Chan" offered the not-entirely-original, but still fun, premise of an obvious James Bond surrogate who got old and lame, which isn't really what it delivers; those scenes are taken out of one segment of the movie, and the actual way that's played isn't nearly as funny as what was sold. It winds up being one of a number of pieces that don't quite fit together, making for a generic spy spoof that just gets a few laughs.

In 1997, Chan Ho Yan ("Dayo" Wong Tse Wah) was Hong Kong's top spy, a charmer who, a mere three weeks after meeting Yu Heung (Charmaine Sheh See-man), is marrying her at the estate of her godfather, a notorious arms dealer. Dedicated to world peace, he destroys the mini-nuke he steals rather than giving it to his superiors, which gets him and tech-minded sidekick Genius (Cheng Sze Kwan) fired. Over the next twenty years, they're bounced from every spy agency until they're working as low-rent private detectives, while Heung has channeled her anger at being deceived into a career with the police (using every opportunity to punish Chan along the way), and she has recently been appointed Secretary of Security. When the Secretary of Finance (Lawrence Cheng Tan-shui) embarrasses himself in public after being given a peculiar drug, the official story and Heung's relation to the victim prevents her from investigating officially, and her best option appears to be hiring Chan, who follows a path that leads to the "Happy Girls" teen pop group headlined by Yuki (Larine Tang Yue-ping) and Angela (Cecilia So Lai-han), of all places.

Even considering that the filmmakers are training their sights on very specific targets, there's still a lot of potentially funny and clever ways this spoof could go, and the bit at the center where the easily-seduced, disposable "Bond Girl" winds up more capable and impressive but still angry may not be the absolute most original but it's at least fun, as is the direction they eventually go with a spy's greatest threat not necessarily being the other side but honesty. There are worse sources of humor than how what's cool is fleeing and what was life-or-death twenty years ago is no longer a big deal. The filmmakers don't often go that route, unfortunately, instead giving the audience a bunch of "hey! Bond stuff!" references that were the laziest part of the Austin Powers movies fifteen to twenty years ago, and snickering at Hong Kong idol nerds (who are, apparently, just like their Japanese analogs) before ultimately settling for being The Nude Bomb, only without the same sense of absurdity.

It's a big disappointment, really, because there's an entertaining cast here. Sure, as star and co-writer, Dayo Wong could probably lean into Chan being kind of ridiculous more; his best moments are when Chan is at his most ridiculous but not realizing it rather than appearing frustrated by how dorky he has to seem, but he only intermittently seems to grasp that a genuinely eccentric nerd is more appealing than blandness or mockery. Consider a sequence where, pretending to be a nerd, he winds up wearing a ridiculous costume; the moments where he seems to forget he's wearing it and just continues normally are much funnier than the ones where he's annoyed and up in arms. He's still got just enough charisma that there is actual chemistry between Wong and co-star Charmaine Sheh, despite there never being much to suggest that they should be anything but antagonistic. Sheh's Heung is often all-business, but there's humanity to her clenched fist of a cop; she handles the silliness of the story as well as anybody but also makes it clear that she's not all anger and pettiness. Cheng Sze Kwan mostly handles sidekick duty well, while Cecilia So Lai-shan and Larine Tang Yue-ping are entertaining enough as the girl-group members, though So in particular has to play a character whose personality and motivation flip whenever the story needs something different.

Still, wong and co-writer Kelvin Lee Si-zhen come up with some good jokes, and I suspect many of them will play better for its intended audience than me. A lot of it is clearly built around Cantonese-English wordplay and hyper-local pop culture, so a clunky pun about a drug called "Hy-do-gen" will get the groans it deserves and canto-pop star Sammi Cheng acting wacky isn't just "generic celebrity BS". Director Jeff Cheung Ka-kit (graduating to the top job after serving as an assistant director and editor for Johnnie To, Dante Lam, and Wilson Yip) seems to get that it's better for a goofy comedy to jump ahead rather than get bogged down in explaining things; he keeps a zippy pace and working well with the action team.

"Agent Mr. Chan" just never finds a really clever twist, though; it's a spoof of material that has in many ways acknowledged its own absurdity and not just made the same jokes but started to address them. It's got enough laughs to get through 100 minutes without the audience getting too fidgety, but even more than other movies from China (and specifically Hong Kong) that have made their way to America, it's much more for the folks who don't need subtitles than those who do.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32149&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/09/18 09:45:27
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USA
  23-Feb-2018

UK
  N/A

Australia
  23-Feb-2018


Directed by
  Jeff Cheung

Written by
  Tse-wah Wong
  Kelvin Lee

Cast
  Tse-wah Wong
  Charmaine Sheh
  Sze-Kwan Cheng
  Cecilia So



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