It’s too much to expect that people stay funny throughout their entire careers, but given the dearth of real humor in any of Woody Allen’s recent offerings, it’s almost depressing to watch a little gem like 1966’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? and remember just how effortlessly goofy the guy could be. In this, his first (sort of) directorial outing, Allen had a great idea: Take a bad Japanese James Bond knock-off, remove the soundtrack, and add in his own dialogue without changing the actual film at all.
Viewers may be alarmed at first, as the film starts off with several minutes of the film playing with its non-subtitled Japanese dialogue intact. It’s a fast-paced series of quick action scenes involving bad kung fu and a flamethrower and gives you the impression that even if one knew Japanese, it wouldn’t be making much more sense. Then Allen himself shows up and describes what he has done to the film, playing it completely straight.
The James Bond stand-in, Phil Moscowitz (Tatsuya Mihashi), has an extremely smarmy smile but a way with pretty much every woman that crosses his path. After a romantic rendezvous gets cut short by a sniper with extremely bad aim, Phil gets pulled into a ridiculous plot that involves getting the recipe for the world’s greatest egg salad from gangster Shepherd Wong (Tadao Nakamaru). To do so he must team up with Wing Fat (Susumu Kurobe) and a pair of babes (Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama). Along the way there’s guns, vaguely Turkish-looking evil dudes, poisonous snakes, and a bartender who does a mean Peter Lorre impression. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, as is highlighted in a brief interlude where an interviewer comes on and asks Allen is he cares to explain the plot to the audience, to which Allen says, “No,” and we’re back to the action.
Oddly enough, Allen doesn’t overplay the humor here (with the exception of naming one of the girls Teri Yaki). Instead of going for zany antics and trying to cram in a joke whenever a word is spoken (having one man say to another, “You know, I’ve always loved you,” etc.), the writing tends more towards the good non sequitur, such as “Don’t tell me what to do, or I’ll have my mustache eat your beard,” or a running gag where everytime Phil beats on someone he shouts, “Saracen pig!” or “Spartan dog!” with each punch. It’s hard to imagine where the guys at Mystery Science Theater 3000 would be without this movie.
There is the unfortunate addition of a soundtrack by that timeless gaggle of hippies, The Lovin’ Spoonful (footage of whom is actually spliced into the original film), but even that can’t ruin this utterly silly, throwaway movie. It reminds you of a time when Allen didn’t seem to have to try so hard, and is ultimately probably funnier than Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Small Time Crooks, Sweet and Lowdown and Celebrity all put together.
Review by Chris Barsanti © 2003 filmcritic.com