Tim van Dammen/ New Zealand/ 2018/ 79 mins
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 20 May 2019
New Zealand has a reputation for low-key, wryly charming comedies marked by deadpan humour and filled with lovable losers whose dreams and desires are scuppered by circumstances, but often by their own insecurities and incompetence. Mega Time Squad contains many of these sad-sacks, although most of them are the same person.
John (Anton Tennet) is an affable dim-bulb and the tiniest minnow in the small pond that is the criminal underworld of Thames (pop. 7000), the local kingpin of which is Shelton (Jonny Brugh, What We Do in the Shadows). Fed up with being a gofer for his boss, John decides to rob an antique store that is a money laundering front for the local Triads (because of course). During this haphazard heist he takes an ancient Chinese bracelet which allows him to travel a few minutes back in time. By multiplying himself, he creates the titular squad, ignoring warnings that it will attract the attention of a demon who will come to claim his soul.
As the deceptively bombastic title suggests, Mega Time Squad is heavy on irony, as the minutes tick by at the lowest register; a grounded approach that is to the film’s credit. It fits entirely within the mode of humour prevalent in New Zealand film for decades and popularised by Flight of the Conchords, with John recognisable as the type of hapless romantic as Timothy Balme‘s Lionel in Peter Jackson’s glorious early splatter-fest Braindead. While the touchstones are readily apparent, there is much to recommend Tim van Dammen’s film on its own terms.
The plot deliberately makes zero sense once the multitudes of Johns begin causing chaos. There is no attempt to negotiate the tricky mechanics of time travel, a la Primer, or deal with its attendant paradoxes. The is prevents the film from becoming even remotely bogged down as it hammers along for 80 minutes. For a low budget effort, the visual effects are impressively seamless as Tennet interacts with himself; the actor making a decent fist of navigating the madness.
There are also many neat touches, such as a running gag involving a luckless goon who keeps catching fragments of ricocheted bullets in the same eye. There’s the inevitable love interest too, in the spiky form of Kelly (Hetty Gaskell-Hahn), who happens to be Shelton’s sister and, randomly, an explosives expert. This leads to perhaps cinema’s first ever instance of Chekhov’s Vest.
On the negative side, there is a slight imbalance of tone where the otherwise 12A charm of the film is undercut by some extremely salty language (though a C-Bomb dropped in the Kiwi accent sounds surprisingly musical). Beyond this, towards the end there ends up being so many Johns running around that the story almost winds up being swept away in its own whirlwind anarchy. Oh, and the less said about the demon the better.
Though Mega Time Squad may not reach the high watermark achieved by compatriots Peter Jackson and the contemporary brilliance of Taika Waititi, van Dammen has made a hugely impressive little genre-bender with wit and energy to spare and never risks sticking around long enough to begin to out stay its welcome. It certainly won’t make you wish you could turn back the clock yourself.