On DVD: 9 Movie Spies MacGruber Should Have Studied
MacGruber, out this week on DVD, yawned in theaters, and I think I know why: satires of spy/secret agent/man-of-action genre stuff are already thick on the ground, and have been since the '60s. There must be something inherently funny about the Cold War if it gave birth to a "spy" like James Bond, who didn't even do much spying. (Aren't spies supposed to be, you know, covert? Did Sean Connery ever do anything but announce his presence everywhere he went?) And now that we know the whole Cold War was a sham anyway, we can't shake the silliness. Maybe it was all one big, extremely preposterous movie, like these 9 spy comedies:
Our Man Flint (1966), In Like Flint (1967)
These are the first authentic James Bond farces -- bad teeth aside, Austin Powers is essentially a remake of these outrageously dated comedies that star James Coburn as a skinny Casanova spy in a turtleneck and black leather gloves. And the first film's evil mastermind plot involves global warming! Austin Powers is funnier, but still.
Get Smart (1965-70)
Of course, Mel Brooks got there first (and best) with this timeless idiot-spy sitcom, folding vaudeville humor and Borscht Belt yocks into the template of the Cold War espionage thriller. In its own way, Brooks's show explains more than a shelf of historians about how and why modern global politics were and still are trainwrecks of ideological stupidity. There's no denying the show's quick wit and faux-techno surrealisms, beginning with Smart's iconic shoe phone and graduating to Dick Gautier as the malfunctioning Hymie the Robot. As Maxwell Smart, Don Adams remains fifteen kinds of squinty-eyed deadpan, but a quarter century later the revelations are Ed Platt, always on the verge of a frustrated seizure as Smart's beleaguered chief, and the luscious Barbara Feldon, whose Smart partner/love interest Agent 99 balanced sidekick duties and buoyant comedy so beautifully it's hard to believe she didn't become a star. Forget the deplorable Steve Carell remake, and find the DVD box set of the original.
Casino Royale (1966) The Bond films always verged on self-joshing, at least until Daniel Craig showed up and suddenly everything got grim as an undertaker. Still, this boondoggle (technically the fifth Bond movie) is an out-and-out joke, with Woody Allen and Peter Sellers showing up as two of several alternate Bonds amid a '60s-Beverly Hills party of white-booted go-go girls, bubble machines, hot pink and lame humor. Unbelievably, imdb.com lists Sellers, Allen, Ben Hecht, Terry Southern, Billy Wilder and Joseph Heller as uncredited scriptwriters. They must have all been high as kites.
The Silencers (1966) The first Matt Helm spy spoof, starring Dean Martin as another suave, barely sober spy master. Followed by Murderers' Row (1966) and The Wrecking Crew (1969). Honestly, you need to be jonesing for the '60s in the worst way to make it through this.
The President's Analyst (1967) An actual, plotted comedy: Coburn is the titular shrink who cracks under Cold War pressure and jumps off the radar, precipitating mad espionage pursuit from both sides. Though absurd and cheesy, it looks like Oscar Wilde compared to the other '60s genre satires.
Spies Like Us (1985) Remember when Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd were comedy geniuses? Me neither.
True Lies (1994) James Cameron had a filament of humor in his body somewhere, and it got burned up in this heavy-duty Arnold Schwarzenegger farce, all but stolen by Jamie Lee Curtis as the wife who learns that her suburban husband is not only an Austrian bodybuilder unfit for employment as anything but an actor in movies requiring little dialogue, but a spy.
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies _(2006) A French romp that's expressly satirizing not the Bond lineage but the OSS 117 novels that predated Ian Fleming's and the '60s movies adapted from them. Doesn't matter -- the eponymous spy is a boorish, brainless European running amuck in the Third World, and the movie is a blast. The first of several sequels, _OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009), just came out on DVD last month.
Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery (1997) You've been there, and have pursued the sequels with growing exhaustion, as have we all. Still the best line, after Powers is acquainted with the 30 years of news he missed in cryo-freeze: "I can't believe Liberace was gay. I mean, women loved him! I didn't see that one coming..."