Good New Zealand comedies are rare and precious jewels. For every success story, there's a half-dozen half-baked comedies that barely make an impact in their native country, let alone overseas. Perhaps there's more government support for “serious” films. Perhaps Kiwi comedy is just difficult to translate to screen. Perhaps I, as a New Zealander, am bound to be more critical of my country's output than foreigners, cringing at the more provincial aspects of our culture. But the fact remains: Kiwi comedy is a mixed bag.
Tim Van Dammen's second feature Mega Time Squad clearly strives for a loose, goofy comedy/sci-fi niche. In concept, it certainly succeeds. We follow John (Anton Tennet), an errand boy of sorts for his small town's small-time crime boss Shelton (What We Do In The Shadows’ Jonny Brugh). While stealing a Chinese rival's money from an antique shop, John acquires a mystical bracelet that can transport the wearer back in time. Naturally, John bollockses everything up by meeting his past self, creating a small group of temporal clones who dub themselves the Mega Time Squad - and, according to the antique shop's owner, unleashing a powerful Chinese demon. Cue hijinks!
That setup sounds like a comedy sketch, and that's exactly how it's treated. The film's best setpieces use the time-clone nonsense to generate madcap stupidity, while a handful of running gags build to a nice payoff. Better still, it's all shot through with genuine Kiwi optimism, social awkwardness, and small-scale ambition.
It doesn't all work, though. If Mega Time Squad's premise feels like a sketch, so too does its story and execution. Tennet and his co-stars perform with energy and gusto, but their characters are thin and undeveloped, the plot entirely surface-level. John starts off an embarrassing dick, and ends up a slightly less-embarrassing dick. Aside from a token nod towards blazing one's own path, no growth takes place for this guy.
Even if John did change in some way, though, it’d be hard to tell, as the film rapidly loses coherency once he splits into five (and more) versions of himself. Don’t waste your time trying to keep track of individual Johns. As the various clones double-cross and prank one another, it’s extremely difficult to follow what’s going on, draining away any investment we had in the character. In a time travel movie, where the audience will be watching for paradoxes and such like, having some idea of what transpires is key. Oddly, the film would probably be improved if it dove further into this bewildering madness: it’d make the intention clearer and lend it a more chaotic vibe. As it is, the film sits just on the edge, where we keep wondering whether we should have a better grasp on the plot.
Mega Time Squad's jokes rely on its rough New Zealand dialogue: everyone speaks in an exaggerated, profanity-laden Kiwi “bro” accent that, while accurate for small-town New Zealand, gets tiresome after being delivered by every character for 90 minutes. This is, after all, a movie where supporting characters are named things like Gibbo, Gaz, and Hootch. Granted, Mega Time Squad's dialogue is authentic and, to most audiences, will play as faintly scandalous hilarity, but boy, this is not a movie with distinct character voices - especially since half the characters are literally the same person.
Whether or not it was intended, Mega Time Squad is also depressingly racist. Putting racial slurs in the mouths of your bad guys is one thing (and boy, does Brugh sling those slurs), but the film itself isn't that far removed from that. The protagonists make constant “Made in China” jokes; the only two Asian characters are a gangster and a wise, profane old man (see? It's funny because it's an old man saying swears!); and the entire story revolves around a mystic Oriental cliche that was already old in the ‘80s (and doesn't even deliver on its demonic promise). Then again, I guess that's authentic too: as Taika Waititi copped local flak for saying, New Zealand is, like nearly everywhere, a racist place.
None of this is improved by the film’s loose editing and relative lack of visual style, other than the montages Van Dammen cribs from Edgar Wright (or Sam Raimi). In several instances, lengthy takes create jokes; in others, jokes are ruined by poor timing. Worse and subtler still, the empty, sterile sound mix exposes its ADRed lines, evaporating any sense of atmosphere or chemistry. This kind of undercooked mix is off-putting as hell - especially in a bouncy comedy like Mega Time Squad.
Don’t get me wrong: Mega Time Squad has its moments, and an adorable pluckiness that audiences will likely get behind. But there’s just no substance to this movie, and not quite enough style to push it into the “Mega” realm it clearly wants to occupy. If a light, silly romp is your speed, you’ll dig it. But if you want anything more than that, you’re shit outta luck, mate.