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Endgame (2021)
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by Jay Seaver

"Occasionally clever despite being toothless."
3 stars

I've seen "Endgame" described as a Chinese remake of a Korean film which was itself a remake of a Japanese film, and it's not so much that things have been lost in translation as the edges have been sanded off. It's got a fine, well-tested premise and the basics of the jokes are known to work, but I'd be surprised if the Chinese crew added that much to what the previous filmmakers came up with.

The high-concept premise has unsuccessful actor Chen Xiaomeng (Xiao Yang) visiting a public bath right when another man (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) slips on a bar of soap and lands on his head. Xiaomeng, already considering ending his own life and remembering how nicely dressed the other man was, switches locker keys and uses the money he finds in the man's car to pay off his debts - until he finds out that the man has survived but has retrograde amnesia, and he can theoretically keep this luxurious new life. There's a catch, though - Zhou Quan is a hitman, and after having her husband disposed of, client Hui Hui (Huang Xiaolei) would like "Mr. Z" to take out his pregnant mistress Zeng Jiurong (Cheng Yi). Meanwhile, "Chen Xiaomeng" is released from the hospital to an unfamiliar apartment, but makes a friend in Li Xiang (Wan Qian), a single mom and newsmagazine writer who needs a subject for a new feature article.

It seems like there's a really clever or zany movie to be made with this premise, but the various bits of it don't wind up playing off each other very well. The thread with Chen living the cushy life of a rich assassin doesn't cross over with Zhou living his enough, and the film often seems neutered in other ways. It's self-aware enough to play like one of a comedy that spoofs conventions except that the filmmakers don't seem to know much else and fall back upon them. The Chinese "Crime Can Not Pay" dictate makes the end a lot messier than it has to be (while also requiring hilariously thorough mid-credits pieces making sure that the audience knows that the system dealt with everybody who deserved it to the exact letter of the law) while undercutting what may be any sort of theme about how each could benefit from some part of the other's lives. There's a brutal observation or two to be made here but the filmmakers don't seem to have the stomach for it, and a ready-made barb early on about Li's readers looking for lurid stories of "amnesia, abortion, and love triangles" is not the set up it should be.

The biggest problem, though, is that it is unbalanced. Andy Lau's character is presented as having been a ruthless hitman before the amnesia, but Lau portrays him as completely good-hearted and earnest and ironically a far better actor than Chen because he's trained to be a master of disguise who vanishes into his character, eventually lecturing his counterpart on why he's not a good actor when they do meet. Xiao Yang, meanwhile, is mugging for the camera and never gets the material that would play to how Chen is both good-hearted and desperate, especially since director Rao Xiaozhi and his co-writers seldom give him the chance to succeed because folks expect gangsters to be flamboyant and dramatic. Both of these actors should be getting a certain combination of sincerity and absurdity to play, but it never works out that way.

They are game for what the filmmakers give them, though, and the movie comes alive when the script hits a quality comedy set-up, even if there are just as many maudlin ones meant to be heartwarming but which don't work nearly so well in a movie that has at least made motions toward acknowledging the medium's artifice. There's one goofy moment involving a ball-pit that makes me wonder what the movie would be like if the whole thing were along those lines, and a side-story going on during the climax that would play even more enjoyably peculiar if it were played off the high-stakes material going on at the same time a little better. It's also worth noting that the women who get to play eccentric but straightforward characters are often a lot more entertaining than the male leads: Wan Qian nails how Li Xiang is good-hearted and funny but also no fool in relatively few scenes, and Huang Xiaolei seems to have a grand old time chewing scenery in what the subtitles suggest is defiantly broken Mandiran as the sort of low-class foil who may be ignorant of a lot but has a sharp mind for what she does know. It would have been a lot more fun to have sparks fly between Xiao's "Mr. Z" and her rather than the sketchily defined Jiurong.

It makes for enough of a mess to make one curious to see the original Japanese and Korean versions, or ponder an English-language remake, all responding to their industries' own particular tropes. In a way, "Endgame" does that in how it's restricted by how far a crime movie made in China can go, but it never shows the satirical courage necessary to properly bite the hand that feeds it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34161&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/27/21 23:18:04
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  12-Feb-2021 (MA)

Directed by
  Xiaozhi Rao

Written by
  Xiang Fan
  Xiang Li
  Xiaozhi Rao

  Andy Lau
  Yang Xiao
  Qian Wan
  Xiaolei Huang

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