The mean streets of Thames, New Zealand — though “moderately impolite” appears to be about as bad as it gets — become an improbable setting for supernaturally-sparked action in “Mega Time Squad.” Tim van Dammen’s clever crime comedy pegs good guys and bad guys alike as gormless clods, a dynamic only heightened after the discovery of a time-travel device that generates clones of our none-too-bright hero. The unique mix of simultaneously droll and broad humor is very nicely delivered by a well-cast ensemble, resulting in a polished oddity that should make a splash at home, while attracting decent overseas interest.
The film represents a considerable leap from prolific music-video helmer van Dammen’s prior feature, 2013’s amusing if rough trailer-park rock musical “Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song,” and the tongue-in-cheek splashiness of its style is immediately engaging. John (Anton Tennet) is a prime punter in his town of 7,000, where long-deceased parents and no surplus of grey matter has landed him in circumstances humble even by local standards. He lives in a garage (from which he’s about to be evicted), while “working” as one of several dim-bulb flunkies for middleweight local crime boss Shelton (Jonny Brugh from “What We Do in the Shadows”).
Shelton orders John and best mate Gaz (Arlo Gibson) to intercept a money drop at an antiques store by a rival Chinese-triad gang. This is already a bad idea, but it gets worse when Gaz professes he’s tired of being “Shelton’s bitch,” proposing they abscond with the dough themselves. Mid-heist, John is attracted by a sort of charm bracelet on the premises, taking it along despite the shopkeeper’s dire warnings.
Alas, things go south very quickly, so that John finds himself on the run from both his own and the foreign nationals’ crime syndicates. However, he also discovers an escape route from various would-be assassins: That charm is a primitive time machine, permitting its wearer to be transported back far enough to avoid whatever trouble they’re facing. It also duplicates its user — so with each use, there’s one more John clone running around, warning or abetting the prior editions.
This is good news, particularly when the original John realizes that he can now comprise his own gang (see: title). The bad news is that none of these “other me’s” are any brighter than the original, leading to inter-John arguments and backstabbing. Worse, this hocus pocus comes courtesy of an ancient Chinese demon that sooner or later is going to claim the lives, and possibly eternal souls, of every last John. Their only reliable ally becomes the girl all Johns are sweet on, Shelton’s younger sister Kelly (Hetty Gaskell-Hahn).
“Mega Time Squad” is essentially a farce of criminal bungling, with its fantasy element taken no more seriously than anything else. Fast-paced, determinedly silly, with sharp slangy dialogue and funny situations (particularly once we arrive at the ace sight gag of a half-dozen Johns stirring chaos), the film hits just the right absurdist notes to sustain its joke. Even if inspiration does begin to fade a bit toward the end, van Dammen’s script rallies with a satisfying climax in which John reads the riot act to his insufferable, bullying ex-boss.
It takes a lot of skill to keep something this ridiculous airborne, which van Dammen does with particularly astute contributions from Luke Haigh’s quick-reflexed editing and DP Tim Flower’s witty compositions. Not to mention a soundtrack whose penchant for alternately bombastic and grandiose ’80s-style synthpop provides perfect ironic counterpart to all the idiotic behaviors onscreen. The cast is first-rate, with Brugh an impressively whingeing villain, while more is more as far as Tennet is concerned — the effects that allow multiple Johns in the frame are no less impressive than the actor’s ability to keep them all equally, endearingly dim.