The premise is so light, you can transmit it to someone by breathing on their skin: A Japanese action picture is dubbed over by nonsensical comic dialogue written and performed by Allen and his confederates. In the spoof genre, it was a total original. Not long afterward, it was completely subsumed by the surreal irreverence of the Police Squad! series, the 1980 movie Airplane!, and others.
This would be a downright avant-garde pick for someone’s favorite Woody Allen picture, like declaring loudly that you prefer Tonight for Sure to The Godfather, Part II. The most inventive part of the film is the title sequence, a hybrid of the Pink Panther-inspired trend of animating caricatures into Duck Amuck-style contortions, and the still-relevant trend in the James Bond franchise to put pictures of naked ladies through a storm of graphic design effects.
The source movie, Key of Keys (an installment in the International Secret Police series, led by Japanese action star Tatsuya Mihashi), is suitably corny, adventure/suspense serial fodder, most of it taking place on stationary ships.It’s not unreasonable to conclude that What’s Up, Tiger Lily? wouldn’t be as much fun if Key of Keys wasn’t any good; the direction and editing clears an acceptable minimum of crisp competence, and the movie has that sweaty, sun-baked charm of a thousand 007 knock-offs.
The main conceit, of course, is the dubbing. Talking over movies is now largely out of fashion with the advent of smartphones; clowns in the audience are more likely to text or tweet or Snapchat their jokes to absent friends. (The legacy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 also casts a long shadow.) Concerning Allen and company’s proto-RiffTrax job on Key of Keys, picture a job of ad-libbing that would normally fall to idle teens in the balcony rows now carried out by a crack squad of Borscht Belt comedy writers. Provided you’re in the mood, there’s lots of funny stuff – for me, the ideal state was achieved during the safecracking sequence, where we see no faces, and hear only Allen’s cabal rendering an absurdist play-by-play with a perfect punchline.