A smart idea largely goes the distance in "Men Suddenly in Black," a battle-of-the-sexes comedy that's played like a straight-faced cops-vs.-triads movie. Film took a sturdy HK$11 million in its first three weeks after opening mid-September, and could work as a Western remake with a star cast attached.

A smart idea largely goes the distance in “Men Suddenly in Black,” a battle-of-the-sexes comedy that’s played like a straight-faced cops-vs.-triads movie. Second feature by young writer-director Edmond Pang demands a certain knowledge of Hong Kong cinema to get some of the in-jokes, but its theme of male sexual insecurity, handled in a charitable way, translates well into any culture. Film took a sturdy HK$11 million ($1.4 million) in its first three weeks after opening mid-September, and could work as a Western remake with a star cast attached.

Pang, who wrote the original novel behind Johnnie To’s “Fulltime Killer,” debuted in features with the cult hit “You Shoot, I Shoot” (2001), about a professional assassin who hires a movie geek to film his hits. “Men” is far more accessible to non-H.K. auds, and has a script that doesn’t suffer from the territory’s customary third-act weaknesses.

Without even a wink at the audience, a pre-title sequence sets up the movie as a zippy gangster drama. Left alone for 14 hours as their female partners go on a trip to Bangkok, three buddies, dressed in underworld black, assemble for some dark mission. Led by Brother Tin (Eric Tsang, the diminutive triad in “Infernal Affairs”), Cheung (Jordan Chan) and Chao (Chapman To) are joined by Tin’s young nephew from Beijing, Paul (Mainlander Spirit Blue).

Using a stolen taxi for anonymity, the quartet set out on a mission to honor their late-lamented hero, Ninth Uncle (Tony Leung Kar-fai), who’s been incarcerated for years. However, as soon becomes clear through mock-heroic flashbacks, the characters aren’t gangsters at all, and Ninth Uncle is simply an aging lothario who was once caught by his wife (Sandra Ng) and has since been “imprisoned” by her at home. Our heroes’ mission is to restore male pride by getting laid in the next few hours and escape detection by their female “authorities.”

Said mission, captioned with datelines and timelines like some heist movie, involves looking up old flames, visiting a cyber-brothel and generally trying (without success) to behave badly. Just when the high concept looks like it’s running out of gas, pic switches to the p.o.v. of the women, led by Tin’s wife, Carrie (Teresa Ho), who are on the males’ tails after disembarking from their flight at the last moment.

Last act is played out like a crime drama in a smart hotel, with the femmes trying to find and nail their errant partners, who’ve taken refuge in a luxurious suite.

Though it thankfully never turns too serious, and relies for entertainment on neat twists and relationships comedy, the picture does have more substantial underpinnings that give the characters some flavor beyond stereotype. As solidarity starts to break down on both sides, there’s a growing feeling that the whole game is being powered by Tin and Carrie — he a put-upon middle-class husband who’s retreated into a fantasy world, she a high-powered but emotionally lonely lawyer — as a way of playing out a desiccated marriage.

Tsang and Ho are aces in these two roles, managing flashes of seriousness between the laughs, and the rest of the cast are basically supporting players. Among the latter, Chan as hangdog doctor Cheung and Candy Lo as Chao’s antsy, superstitious wife, are the most flavorsome. A host of local names pop up in cameos, including Sammo Hung as a restaurant owner.

Production values are smooth; original Chinese title translates as an ironic “Big Men.”

Men Suddenly in Black

Hong Kong

Production

A Mei Ah Film Production Co. release of an Anytime Pictures Co. presentation of a United Filmmakers Organization, Anytime Pictures production. (International sales: Mei Ah, H.K.) Produced by Nat Chan, Buce Ren. Executive producer, Eric Tsang. Directed by Edmond Pang (Pang Ho-cheung). Screenplay, Pang, Patrick Kong, Erica Li; story, Pang.

Crew

Camera (color), Kenny Lam; editor, Wenders Li; music, Peter Kam, Anthony Chue; music supervisor, Kam; production designer, Ho Kum-hung; image designer, Dora Ng; sound, Dolby Digital; associate producer, Cha Chuen-yee. Reviewed on videocassette, London, Oct. 18, 2003. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Eric Tsang, Jordan Chan, Chapman To, Teresa Ho, Candy Lo, Tiffany Lee, Marsha Yuan, Spirit Blue, Maria Cordero, Jenny Raven, Tony Leung Kar-fai, Sandra Ng, Nat Chan, Lam Suet, Sammo Hung, Ellen Chan. (Cantonese & Mandarin dialogue)
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