Amid all the doom, gloom and insufferable direness that defined last summer’s film crop, Ahmed Mekki, Egyptian cinema’s hottest young comedy star, emerged almost out of nowhere to deliver a knockout with “Teer Enta” (Fly Now): the funniest, zaniest comedy of 2009.
An original take on Stanley Donen’s 1967 comedy classic “Bedazzled,” “Teer Enta” was a rare creature: a lighthearted satire with sharp edges and a bucketful of pop culture send-ups. The laughs were big, obligatory messages were reduced to a minimum and the heart of the film pulsated with surprising endearment.
Capitalizing on the same formula that made his sophomore starring role a huge box-office hit, Mekki has re-teamed with the same crew of “Teer Enta” — director Ahmed El-Guindy, young starlet Donia Samir Ghanem and supporting comedian Maged El-Kedwany — for this summer’s best-titled movie, “La Tarogo’ Wala Esteslam: Al-Qabda Al-Damia” (No Retreat, No Surrender: Fist of Blood).
A mischievous parody of Egyptian action flicks, “No Surrender” is easily the most enjoyable Egyptian entertainment of the summer (which doesn’t actually say much, considering the below-average quality of the nine measly productions released over the past three months).
But despite its killer one-liners, stellar supporting characters and of course Mekki’s flawless comic timing, the film falls short from reaching “Teer Enta’s” heights, taking a somewhat more conventional route while relying on easy tricks that prevents it from soaring. I have to admit that I did laugh hard, but I left the theater quite unsatisfied.
The film opens with straight Tony Scott-like dull action sequence featuring Adham (Mekki), the right-hand man of a drug lord called Azaam (an unwelcome Ezzat Abou Ouf). A drug transaction turned bloodbath, the seemingly invincible Adham is murdered, creating a loophole for the police to infiltrate Azaam’s gang.
Enter Sirag Sirag Sirag Mounir (El-Kedwany), head of the “Secret Office of the Secret Administration for Fighting Secret Crimes.” Withholding the news of Azaam’s assassination from the press, Mounir comes up with a nifty idea: finding a look-alike replacement of Adham to blow Azaam’s cover. Aided by a peculiar Australian plastic surgeon, Mounir finds his prey in Hazla’oum, an unemployed ginger-haired, squeaky-voiced commoner who makes El-Limby, the high priest of all hoodlums, look like James Bond.
With zero talent and a supernatural knack for stupidity, the process of Hazla’oum’s make-over proves grueling, much to the chagrin of Azaam’s secretary/police informant Germaine (Ghanem) who, nonetheless, gradually starts to warm to his kindheartedness (don’t they all?). Eventually, Hazla’oum must learn to take responsibility, find a meaning to his worthless existence and embrace his inner idiocy.
“No Surrender” wastes no time in establishing itself as a spoof, and the film has no shortage of film references; from El-Kedwany’s character name (a nod to great Egyptian actor Sirag Mounir) to the hilarious dream sequence of Ghassan Mattar, the famously brooding thespian who explains how directors have always typecast him in the villain role.
The referential temperament of Sherif Naguib’s script is bolstered by a self-awareness that constantly reminds the viewers of the intrinsic nature of the film. The anchor of this course is El-Kedwany’s second in command, (Mohamed Shahin) who points out early on how tired the premise of the mission, and thus the film, is; continuously making correct predictions about the plot’s unfolding events.
It’s this self-awareness that sets “No Surrender” apart from the average Egyptian comedy, placing it among a very small group of Egyptian parodies, fronted by legendary comedian Fouad El-Mohandes’ three fruitful collaborations with scriptwriter Anwar Abdalla: “Akhtar Ragol Fil Alam” (The Most Dangerous Man in the World), “Awdet Akhtar Ragol Fil Alam” (The Return of the Most Dangerous Man in the World) and “Viva Zalata.”
Unlike Ahmed Helmy’s recent self-important socially-conscious comedies, “No Surrender,” for the most part, doesn’t pretend to be anything but a big, dumb comedy. And when the jokes work, they really work.
Take for instance the first introductory sequence of Hazla’oum. Having used all his savings for another stab at illegal immigration to Greece, Hazla’oum finds himself instead in Baltim, Alexandria and wonders what a freska seller is doing in Athens.
The bevy of uproarious supporting characters lends the script a strong vivaciousness, keeping the film afloat when the pace falters. Best among the lot is the Austrian’s interpreter; a foul-mouthed, nut-spitting middle-aged hag who can lay claim as the world’s worst translator. There’s also an incredibly strong-headed, undefeatable Ninja who pops up every 20 minutes, asking Mekki for “his things,” and Hazla’oum’s mom, Mayar (Dalal Abdel Aziz), a former backing singer for Mohamed Tharwat.
The film starts to suffer though when it starts recreating those formulas instead of parodying them.
The basic plot of the story drags it down near the end as it deviates temporarily off course with the forgettable, mind-numbing climax that takes a lot from the comedy. Although it largely worked in “Teer Enta,” the chemistry between Mekki and Ghanem is lacking in here; their relationship is unconvincing — even within the outlandish context of the film — and overbearing, and the heart of the film ultimately feels hollow.
Unlike the classic spoofs of the Zucker Brothers (“Airplane!”, “The Kentucky Fried Movie”) or Mel Brooks (“Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein”), the comedy doesn’t go all the way, restricted by pointless plot convictions and Abo Ouf’s abysmally tasteless turn.
Comparison to Edgar Wright’s “Hot Fuzz” (2007) is unavoidable. Generally regarded as the best action spoof of modern era, the Simon Pegg starrer balanced strong relationship, thorough characterization and a smart, skillfully constructed plot with riotous comedy brimming with originality. “No Surrender,” by contrast, lacks ingenuity, steering away from challenge and cornering itself in a comfort zone. By the end of the film, El-Guindy simply stops trying and the whole venture becomes lazy.
In spite of its serious shortcomings, “No Retreat, No Surrender” cements Mekki’s position as the freshest, most resourceful Egyptian comedian working today. The film is certainly a step-down from “Teer Enta”; a commendable effort that, alas, lacks the energy, imagination and frivolity of its predecessor.
If Mekki intends to stick to parody or satire, he must find a new edge next time.
While Mekki’s is the most resourceful Egyptian comedian working today, he must find a new edge.