An action/comedy/fantasy whatsit, Tim van Dammen’s Mega Time Squad follows a gormless small-time gangster named John (Anton Tennet) in a podunk, no-horse New Zealand town of a few thousand people who hits upon the genius idea of robbing his egotistical, psychopathic boss Shelton (Jonny Brugh) during a handover of funds from a Chinese Triad. Being the sort of schmuck who hits up a Triad headquarters wearing nothing but a plastic duck mask for disguise, he nonchalantly pockets an odd-looking amulet he finds while his stoner accomplice nabs the money. After immediately getting caught, John escapes execution by Shelton when he discovers the amulet is actually a mystical device capable of warping time and space. As must happen in such situations, Time Travel Shenanigans® ensue. Before long there are a whole gang of befuddled John’s in the same timeline, haphazardly working together to escape the gang, elude the Triad, win the heart of Shelton’s younger sister Kelly (Hetty Gaskell-Hahn), hang onto the stolen money, and dodge a mysterious demon from Chinese mythology that may or may not be hunting him now that he’s crossed the proverbial streams.
But while I doubt I’d ever rewatch it, I would watch a behind-the-scenes documentary of its production, for the logistics involved in the film’s writing, shooting, and editing make the head spin. In true Heinlein “By His Bootstraps” fashion, John finds himself revisiting past events and interacting with them in unforeseen ways from how they were first presented—we’ll find that he’s the one who threw a crucial rock or distracted a ruthless guard or forced his alternate self to do one thing or another. The initial execution escape sequence where John discovers the powers of the amulet is seen from no less than three different perspectives with three different John’s doing this or that at any given time. Later, the various John’s break apart for their own subplots, unexpectedly returning to help or backstab the others as side stories and main narratives cascade into a singularity of storytelling. Most incredibly, I have no idea how the effects shots with the multiple John’s were accomplished, as they physically interact with each other in real-time, barring the possibility of split-screen techniques. Additionally, much of the film is shot outdoors in natural lighting, ruling out green screen sets. According to IMDb, Tennet played all the various John’s, meaning that van Dammen didn’t even rely on one of the oldest tricks of getting characters to interact with themselves onscreen: hire identical twins à la Linda and Leslie Hamilton in James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991).
But for viewers who’ve seen their fill of time-travel hijinks, there’s little else endearing in Mega Time Squad. The film leans hard on the kind of breezy, understated, yet stilted humor popularized by van Dammen’s fellow kiwi Taika Waititi, the sort that relies heavily on befuddled characters no-selling preposterous situations yet overreacting to trivial ones. (Shelton’s goons get a bigger reaction to John’s friend writing “DOPE” on his shoes’ vamps, thereby announcing him as a “PEDO” whenever he crosses his legs, then John literally vanishing in front of them.) The problem is van Dammen isn’t as good at it as many of his contemporaries. Not helping matters is the film’s over-reliance on self-consciously ridiculous dialogue to move the audience’s attention needle whenever there aren’t multiple John’s lurking about. But the screenplay rarely gets any more clever than “[the demon] is known for eating everything in sight and then itself, exactly like my ex-wife.”
As a piece of cinematic craftsmanship, van Dammen has made something truly admirable, and hopefully he gets the chance to make more films in the future, as he’s demonstrated a remarkable capacity for coordinating complex projects. But as a movie, it ultimately disappoints with flat humor and a tired plot.