Unhappy with life bored billionaire Arthur Lempereur (Jean-Paul Belmondo) impulsively decides death is his only option. Yet all his suicide attempts fail. So Arthur travels to Hong Kong. There, with the promise of a multimillion dollar insurance payout, he convinces his tutor, Chinese philosopher Mr. Goh (Valery Inkijinoff) to arrange his assassination. However shortly thereafter Arthur falls madly in love with beautiful striptease artist and philosophy student Alexandrine Pinardel (Ursula Andress) and immediately changes his mind. Alas, Mr. Goh is off in Tibet and unable to call of the legion of relentless professional killers hot on Arthur's trail. Eventually even Arthur's scheming relatives strike a deal with "the Al Capone of the South Seas" Charlie Fallinster (Joe Said, impersonating Sydney Greenstreet!) to bag the bounty on his head. So Arthur, aided by his long-suffering, lovelorn yet loyal manservant Leon (Jean Rochefort) embarks on a series of wacky globetrotting adventures to try to cancel the contract on his life.
Already established as an art-house hero thanks to working with auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville and Claude Chabrol, iconic French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo branched out into action-comedy with That Man from Rio (1964). The result was a blockbuster hit that may have alienated the Nouvelle Vague (Godard famously labelled him "a traitor to the cause") but catapulted him to a new level of mainstream superstardom. And allegedly left a lasting impression on everyone from Steven Spielberg and his Indiana Jones movies to the creators behind no-less iconic anime franchise Lupin III. Naturally Belmondo and director Philippe de Broca immediately reteamed for an even more elaborate follow-up, loosely based on Jules Verne's 1879 adventure novel Les tribulations d'un chinois en Chine. Re-titled Up to His Ears for the international market. Along with landing another smash hit Belmondo also bagged himself Ursula Andress as his new girlfriend. Now that is what you call a successful film.
Unwieldy, possibly overstuffed but routinely endearing with a charming philosophical edge, this madcap action farce comes across like an unholy fusion of Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, The Razor's Edge (1946) and a Harold Lloyd comedy. The film’s dark humoured ribbing of the preoccupation with ennui and existential crises so central to French art and great French thinkers from Jean-Paul Sartre to Godard might one reason why it rubbed contemporary critics up the wrong way. Not everything works (the fast-motion slapstick sequences war out their welcome) but once things really get going the breakneck pace and frantic invention never let up. Philippe de Broca fashions the film as a live-action comic book foregrounding elaborate decor, costumes and big crowd-pleasing stunts performed by Belmondo, here showcased in his prime. Whether stumbling into performing a striptease in drag, crashing a Peking Opera performance, performing an impressive proto-Jackie Chan scaffolding fight, clinging to the side of a speeding plane (together with Ursula Andress!) or finally going full Belmondo and wielding an enormous machinegun to mow down hordes of anonymous hit-men, the typically ebullient star is a delight to watch, gradually transforming from neurotic depressive to daredevil action hero. Similarly Ursula Andress, though sadly not in the film as much as fans would hope, nonetheless essays a heroine with more going on besides bombshell beauty. Alexandrine is an intellectual whose drive to learn more about human beings and truly understand the meaning of life shakes Arthur out of his funk. She enacts a subtle but potent character arc, one that reflects the story's core message. Risking life and limb on a regular basis strengthens Arthur's spirit, moral fibre and desire to embrace living. It is a simple message but heartening nonetheless.