As far as cheap imitations of foreign movies go – it is called Ocean 14 (Oshan 14), after all – this is actually quite a good movie. Playing in cinemas now, it’s genuinely funny with lots of original (and really gross) gags and tongue-in-cheek social commentary and political hints squeezed in at multiple levels. It’s still a bit disappointing though. The humor tapers off in the second half, after the big heist, while the level of blind imitation becomes less and less bearable.
The people responsible for this farce are the Masrah Masr theater group, who have become all too popular with their ongoing televised theatrical sketches involving a high volume of young comedians and attendant youthful jokes. In all fairness they do a competent job with Ocean 14 and you don’t feel they are just transferring stuff from their plays to the silver screen. The three untried writers — Amr Badr, Ahmed Magdy and Ihab Biliebel — alongside Shady al-Ramly and Mahmoud Karim, two lacklustre TV directors, seem to be the ones responsible for this shallow aping of various elements of foreign cinema.
The politics of the film is evident from the word go. The hero — named Taoun (meaning plague) and played by Omar Mustafa Metwally — is dedicated to stealing the jewellery of real-life Emerati pop singer Ahlam (whose name means dreams) and we’re treated to the infamously obnoxious Arob Idol clip of Ahlam bragging about her money and her love of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The poor getting even with the excessively rich is clearly what the story is about.
First Taoun hires a criminal modelled after Antonio Banderas in Robert Rodriguez’s famous 1995 Mexico-set thriller Desperado, with the same guitar case full of weapons. Taoun accidentally runs him over. Then he hires an overweight, prematurely balding Kung Fu master who meows in meditation for months in preparation for battle, only to get his ass wupped when he finally gets around to making his move.
So what does Taoun do when these foreign-style solutions don’t work? He relies on good old Egyptian knowhow, in spite of the obviously derivative title of the movie. He gets a safecracker out of prison by pretending to be a national security man foiling a Masonic plot against Egypt and duping a hapless cop (Mostafa Khater) whose names — Safaa Shereen Esmat — are female and who takes his ire out on the prisoners. Later he also beats up a tribal chieftain in Sinai, a clear reference to the mistreatment of Bedouins there in favor of foreign tourists. (Khater’s the best actor in the theatrical team and he could very well be Egypt’s answer to Peter Sellers in Pink Panther mode. He acts with a lot of passion and depth and doesn’t go for cheap laughs, which cannot be said for the rest of the group.)
Taoun also befriends an impressionable young woman, Abeer (Basant Elsabqy), and draws on the resources and chemical skills of minor crime lord Abd al-Malik Hantour (Bayoumi Fouad) to finance the operation. Fouad gives the second best performance in the film as the perpetually stoned brains of the heist and is as “authentically Egyptian” as you can get — although I’m pretty sure the scene where he injects himself in the heart is taken from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
The heist itself is quite ingenious, as they realize that the only way to get to Ahlam is through KFC. Note that the cop tracks Tauon’s crew throughout and allows the crime to happen, just to get himself reinstated, perhaps a nod to Western intelligence agencies being accused of allowing terror acts to take place to get the credit for nabbing terrorists red-handed.
Ahlam is headquartered in a five-star hotel that is not coincidentally located in Sharm El-Sheikh — holiday resort to the rich and famous, Egyptian and otherwise. The manager (Ahmed Halawa) captures one of Taoun’s helpers, disguised as a waiter, and forces him to pick up all the garbage on the beach. The manager describes the hotel as his homeland, having been born there, and puts on a dictatorial act only to desert it when the fire alarm sounds. One of the guests is a man Taoun’s crew had swindled in the past, an ugly old geezer who wastes his money on attractive foreign women. (They sold him cologne that was supposed to make him irresistible, but when he finally discovers that it doesn’t he relies on his money instead). More social themes emerge through Abeer’s brother, Essam (Karim Afifi), an out-of-work computer engineer trying to protect his sister’s “honor.” Taoun gets him on board by drugging his parents so they switch from ultraconservatives to sex maniacs.
That’s the philosophy of the movie, in a nutshell — forcing people to be honest with themselves. Everybody puts on self-righteous airs until they drink something and loosen up, most notably Safaa Shereen Esmat. One of Taoun’s stooges talks about how his father never kissed his mother till they had his younger sister. Questions of cultural authenticity pop up here too as one of Taoun’s crew, played by Nirmen Maher, dons a Lebanese accent to seduce a man, while a nightclub scene has a customer singing away wearing a Union Jack T-shirt. (The actor, Claudia Hannah, is actually Iraqi.)
The scene where real-life butcher-turned-producer Mohamed El Sobky shows up is hilarious. (He clearly can’t act but doesn’t need to, given how foul-mouthed he is.) At a big celebration Mr Hantour spikes everyone’s drinks so the whole nightclub wake up the next day at the Sobky residence (isn’t this an imitation of Todd Phillips’ 2009 comedy The Hangover?) prompting Sobky to complain that his movies aren’t corrupting the nation at all — the implication presumably being that the Masrah Masr people are.
On the more technical level the movie is good too. The production standards are high, with fancy places that actually look fancy and rundown parts of town that do in fact look rundown. There are no mahraganat, just a scene with a singer and a proper belly dancer – the Ukrainian dancer Alla Kushnir. (So much for cultural authenticity, then?)
The ending is a bit morally inconclusive and the last half-hour isn’t as funny as the rest of the film, but it’s a good first attempt for the Masrah Masr group. I’m not a fan of their plays, but they’ve won me over to their side here. I can’t wait to see what else they produce, as long as it’s on the silver screen and has Mostafa Khater and Bayoumi Fouad in it.