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Never Say Die (2017)
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by Jay Seaver

"Note quite so go-for-broke as its title, but still pretty funny."
3 stars

Mahua, the comedy troupe behind "Never Say Die", is not terribly well known outside of China - you'll forgive me if I mess up names because it is frustratingly difficult to find an English-language site that matches actors to characters - but they're a funny group whose last movie ("Goodbye Mr. Loser") may have made me laugh more than any other comedy from Mainland China. Their follow-up is only that funny in fits and starts, but it's got enough hilarious moments to recommend, especially since it seldom truly flops.

It opens with MMA fighter Edison (Allen Ai Lun) telling his opponent's manager that he's decided not to throw the fight unless she doubles his payoff, only to find out from his manager Dong (Song Yang) that he's overweight for a weigh-in for a real fight. One of the reporters, Ma Xiao (Mary Ma Li), has some tough questions about what happened in a match three years ago, and it looks like he might go after her except that her fiance, "Fighting King" Wu Liang (Tian Yu), steps in. He actually does chase after her when she accidentally reveals herself after recording Eidson and Dong making plans to throw a fight, and that's when they fall into the swimming pool and lightening strikes and, the next morning, they wake up not just in the hospital, but in each other's bodies.

As gender-bending body-swap comedies go, Never Say Die probably has to be graded on a scale that involves taking Chinese censorship into account; for all that the group goes for big, broad jokes throughout, they're only really racy for one short stretch toward the beginning, and though months pass with Eidson and Xiao swapped, it never seems like either something that weighs on them or a status quo they come to accept as permanent. It's probably worth a little examination that while Xiao learns to be a fighter and carry herself in a more masculine way in Edison's body, there's not really a complementary storyline where Edison finds some value in femininity; his story is basically stubbornness.

That's fine, though - though the traditional theme of this sort of movie is "some time as a woman might make you a better man", there's a sort of gleeful comedic recklessness in Xiao deciding that the reason the universe decided to switch their bodies was so that she'd have the opportunity to beat the crap out of her unfaithful boyfriend. The filmmakers (working from their own stage play) do a pretty fair job of setting up plenty of good connections between the four main characters and then playing out goofy situations, seldom worrying about going through them too quickly and generally stopping short of beating something into the ground. From an early scene where Edison and Xiao try to reverse things with really poorly considered use of tasers, they're able to use the body-swap as a means to let everybody in on knockabout slapstick, and there's just enough winking at the genre tropes being played with that Dong crying "to the mountaintop" to get Xiao/Edison some martial arts training is funny even before that starts a whole new round of physical comedy.

It's a set-up that gives Allen Ai, in particular, a lot of funny stuff to do, from being ready to fly off the handle as Edison to exaggerated femininity as Xiao, and a lot of material that is amusing no matter who the character he's playing is. Mary Ma Li certainly seems to be having a blast in her early scenes as Edison but, as mentioned, doesn't have nearly as strong a part as the film goes on; she and Ai do have a pretty nice chemistry that goes from warfare to friendship as the film goes on. Song Yang and Shen Tang get amusing secondary characters to play, and Tian Yu does nice work as Wu Liang, who has to be both a comic foil and a straight-out villain at various points.

Chinese comedies tend to be pretty hit-and-miss for me, both because they can only go so far in some areas and because some of the jokes are going to be pop-culture gags that I'm not going to get because only so much of the referenced material makes it near my eyeballs (there were a couple of bits that got the Mandarin-speaking crowd roaring that went over my head in the loud, obvious manner of a fighter-jet flyover). Even with that being the case, I got three or four belly-laughs out of "Never Say Die" and enjoyed most of it, despite all the spots I wished they'd pushed harder.

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originally posted: 10/03/17 05:20:23
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Directed by
  Yang Song
  Chiyu Zhang

Written by

  Allen Ai
  Li Ma
  Xue Haowen
  Teng Shen

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