At the end of 2018, writer/director/actor Scott Dunn delivered Mandao of the Dead and kicked off a promising independent franchise that combined astral projection, time travel, and comedy into an impressively enjoyable narrative. Now he returns with the same team from that first entry (as well as 2016’s tragically underrated and ignored indie comedy Schlep) to continue the epic saga of slacker hero Jay Mandao, his loser “nephew” Jackson, their cab driver Fer, and Jay’s eccentric cousin Andy in Mandao Returns.
When we meet Jay (Dunn) again, he’s crashing on Cousin Andy’s (Sean Liang) couch, lost and aimless like Jackson (Sean McBride). Since discovering his talent for astral projection, Jay seems content to spend his time lurking in the shadows of the spirit world until his father sends him a warning. Cousin Andy is not amused by their constant presence in his living room and puts them to work – for him. As it happens, the manager of a recently deceased starlet is coming over to use his psychic services, and Andy needs their help pulling the wool over the eyes of his mark. What Jay discovers at the meeting, however, sends him and his merry group of outsiders down a path involving drug dealers, Hollywood backstabbing, and a sinister, murderous cult.
“… down a path involving drug dealers, Hollywood backstabbing, and a sinister, murderous cult...”
Once again, Dunn knocks it out of the park with a home run that is entertaining, engaging, and funny without being cringey or mean. As corny as it may sound to say Dunn has a “wholesome” sense of humor, it’s actually quite refreshing to see funny people without being nasty or delving into the deep drama of Judd Apatow’s life cycle. These jokes give the nod to the classic humor of Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and even Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! Even better, whatever rough edges needed to be smoothed out in the first film have now been refined down to a fine grain. Mandao Returns is a slightly slicker production compared to its predecessor and much tighter at the indie-perfect length of 70 minutes.
As expected, the cast gives 110%, beginning with Dunn and McBride, who are destined to become one of comedy’s great duos, particularly in one scene where they swap personas. Liang exponentially expands upon his brief appearance in Mandao of the Dead to make Cousin Andy both likable and hilarious. Gina Gomez Dunn returns as Fer, the mysterious, taxi-driving, unrequited love interest of Jay, her innocent darkness drawing him deeper into the spiraling mess. Then there’s Jenny Lorenzo as Aura Garcia, the popular starlet who’s ready to do anything to get what she wants, and Jim O’Doherty as her scheming manager Ted Williams. The two of them play off each other like the best of frenemies, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
Ultimately, with Mandao Returns, Dunn reminds us that an independent filmmaker on a tight budget can deliver gold with little more than a strong script and solid actors. His movies aren’t flashy, and that’s exactly what makes them so appealing. Rather than create the artifice of spectacle, he brings us relatable characters, a classic sense of humor, and something tangible that’s often lacking in the vast expanses of CGI and green screens. If only more filmmakers took note.
Oh, and by the way, it’s pronounced MAN-DAY-OH.
"…a home run that is entertaining, engaging, and funny..."