Men Suddenly in Black is a one-joke yet consistently funny spoof of Hong Kong gangster movies. I should probably make it clear from the outset that I have virtually no standards when it comes to the send-up comedy genre, as I find the jokes that don’t work frequently funnier than the ones that do. So if you load your movie with transparently stupid references to other movies and genre conventions, you’re unlikely to get an entirely bad review out of me.
If I told you there’s a shootout between our gang of heroes and a mysterious team of shady pursuers involving big flashbulb cameras instead of guns, complete with slow-motion dives out of doorways with a camera in each hand, that would neatly summarise the level of humour to be found here. If you find that overly dopey, for which I certainly wouldn’t blame you, you might want to steer clear.
The gang of would-be adulterers seems to be led (though I use the term loosely) by the older Brother Tin (Eric Tsang), but exists forever in the shadow of a martyred patriarch, Ninth Uncle, a legendary cad who once sacrificed himself for the others in a compromising situation involving a hotel room and a bevy of loose-moralled young ladies. It shouldn’t surprise you at all to learn that he is played by Tony Leung Ka-Fai. Poor Ninth Uncle is now dying a very slow death, housebound and emasculated by his domineering wife (Sandra Ng).
It is Ninth Uncle’s tragic fate which gives rise to the movie’s best (and subtlest) running joke: that the four men go on their mission not because they are particularly sexually frustrated, but because they feel duty bound to behave in this way to honour their fallen comrade. Likewise, their wives (who have in the meantime cancelled their planned trip to Thailand after an attack of superstitious suspicion) pursue their men not because they particularly care about the sex itself, but because they see the infidelity as an affront to their marital authority.
While Hong Kong gangster flick standbys are the movie’s primary referential source (“There’s a traitor among us!”), co-writer and director Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung does not feel the need to be particularly discriminating. The opening titles, for some reason, either refer to David Fincher’s Seven or one of the many movies that have already ripped it off. And most bizarre of all is a musical break two thirds of the way through which directly spoofs the second most famous sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.
The movie could be generously read as having a refreshingly acerbic portrayal of modern marriage, but I honestly don’t think it’s quite that ambitious. The characters here are functions of the jokes, rather than the other way around, which quashes the credibility of any claims that might be made to meaningful subtext. But who cares? It’s a hell of a lot of fun.