“Too Cool to Kill” is a gonzo pastiche of genres, a goofy, gorgeous and almost deliriously dizzy send-up of everything from “El Mariachi” to pretty much every gangster movie John Woo ever made.
And God knows, we all love John Woo.
It’s like a Coen Brothers version of a Tarantino tale — without the wanton bloodshed or prolific profanity.
A soundstage-bound farce from China, writer-director Wenxiong Xing’s romp is based on a 2008 Japanese film, “The Magic Hour.” But it steals from and pays affectionate homage to a score of other pictures and a lost way of of making movies as it does.
The set-up? In a netherworld of fashion and cars from the ’40s through the ’60s, with the movie-making technology to match, a mobster named Mr. Harvey (Minghao Chen) survives an assassination attempt. He’d love to meet, or maybe get his hands on the infamous “Karl the Hit Man.” But first, he’s got to shut down this dopey film he’s financed.
His idea might have been to seduce and even marry the star, Milan (Li Ma). But her director brother Miller (Lun Ai) is sure to serve up another flop. And as Milan has rejected every overture, well, money is money. Itt’s curtains for the cinematic siblings.
Except the star knows how to roll like a femme fatale. She picks up on this desire to meet “Hitman Karl.” She knows him, she says. Give her ten days and she’ll bring him to you.
“TOMORROW, it is!”
That’s how she latches on the hapless, hammy extra Wei Chenggong (Xiang Wei), a bug-eyed, over-enthusiastic ham with a beaverish grin. The actress and her director brother pitch their new “hit man” movie to him. He’ll play…Karl. There is no script. And he’ll never see the camera or crew, just “extras” and co-stars like Ms. Milan. He will “freestyle” (improvise) his scenes in this “new way of filming.”
Thus is our fake “hit-man,” a born ham, given free license to make up gestures, movements and lines as he goes, stunning the mobsters (Dayong Zhou plays Mr. Harvey’s lieutenant, Jimmy) with his manic bravado, confusing them when he figures he can do replay the scene better.
“Sorry. Let’s go AGAIN!”
He brings his own props, improvises a deliciously menacing, over-the-top bit of licking the blade of the Big Boss’s letter opener and disarms one and all with a Hollywood flourish, EVEN in the second take — when they know where he keeps his gun.
A hit man with his finger poised to give Mr. Harvey the worst ear flicking of his life isn’t to be trifled with.
“I don’t believe you can flick me to death!” Yes, that’s funny in Chinese with English subtitles.
Xiang Wei (“Another Me”) turns out to be a gifted physical comic, sliding across desks, shamelessly mugging and carrying on like a “walk on” nobody who’s just landed his big break. He is a riot, pretty much first scene to last. Everybody else has only to react for much of what he does to be funny.
Director Xing keeps this picture on its feet and on the movie. That’s despite the limited number of settings, all of them soundstages, with even the driving sequences using old fashioned rear projection. “Too Cool to Kill” never feels stagebound as it recreates a sort of British seaside town in the early ’50s — “Lying Town” where Rick’s Cafe and the Red Lobster Inn reside.
Every sequence has gags that just kill, situations that are a hoot in the making.
I’d suggest you make a game out of all the movies given a nod here (“Yojimbo,” “Singing in the Rain,” “The Killers”), in scenes recreated, costumes mimicked and the like. But that might make you miss a laugh or 33.
And even though the third act disappoints after what’s come before, Xiang Wei never does. There isn’t a lot of call for actors to pretend to be really bad at what they do. Wei may have cornered the market.
“Wait! WAIT! I’ve prepared a dance to show my PAIN!”
Rating: unrated, comic violence, some of it bloody
Credits: Scripted and directed by Wenxiong Xing, based on the Fuji (Japanese) movie “The Magic Hour.” A Well Go USA release.
Running time: 1:49