Thursday, July 21, 2016

Retro Review: SPIES LIKE US (1985)

Welcome to another installment of RETRO REVIEW, where we take a look at films made before the year 2000. Today we review the 1985 comedy...SPIES LIKE US.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. Hollywood in the 1980's loved making movies about defeating the Russians, either with guns, muscles, or sheer dumb luck. That is, when we weren't trying to prevent our rivalry from spilling over into all out war. 1985's Spies Like Us tries to combine common tropes - bumbling fools trying to prevent World War III - and what starts off as a promising setup falls rather flat in execution.

Those darn Russkis are at it again, as the film opens with an American spy satellite photographing a Soviet missile launcher going walkies through the hinterlands of Siberia. Clearly Boris is up to something, but Uncle Sam's best and brightest have thus far been unable to find out what, as we learn that previous covert operations to discover the Soviets' plans have ended in failure. And so the plan is hatched to send in two operative teams, one to actually carry out the mission, and the other acting as a decoy, unbeknownst to them.

Said decoys come in the form of Emmett Fitz-Hume (Chevy Chase), a very junior diplomat in the State Department, and Austin Milbarge (Dan Aykroyd) a tech geek and cryptographic genius doomed to a basement office for being too clever. After the two are caught cheating on an advancement exam, they are promoted to field operatives and sent to Pakistan with no real idea of what their mission is, or even where they're going.

The movie starts off strongly enough. Spies was made in the era when Chevy Chase was still funny (National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, undeniably Chase's comic peak, was still four years off), and the movie's testing scene is one of Chase's best. Aykroyd, meanwhile, was fresh off of Ghostbusters, released the previous year, and so Austin Milbarge is followed by the not-unpleasant aroma of Dr Ray Stantz throughout the film. The first half of the story spins a thin plot into a good enough mystery to keep you watching, as we know as much about the actual details of our spies' mission as they do throughout the story. Along the way we're also treated to enough cameos to fill a Muppet movie: the film features appearances by directors Sam Raimi and Terry Gilliam, animator Ray Harryhausen, blues legend BB King as the only Black government operative in the entire movie, and comedian Bob Hope in a throwaway reference to the "Road to..." movies of the mid-twentieth century (Road to Morocco and the rest).

The laughs start to drag just in time for the nature of the mission to be revealed, and without spoiling, it frankly doesn't make much sense. The objective of the mission has no discernible impact on the Soviet Union's ability to do much of anything. It seems the US government has been throwing operatives away for no more important reason than to give America a chance to flex a little technological muscle, which is dangerous and rather stupid. Naturally the plan fails.

Apparently, the movie was originally supposed to end in shades of Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, with the world ending in nuclear annihilation (whether or not Spies' original ending included an audience sing-along remains unknown, however). But test audiences didn't like that, so a happy ending was hastily shot, in which the day and world are saved by the kind of impossibly lucky contrivance that we would typically expect from something like an episode of Doctor Who. You can tell the writers had no idea where to take the story after that, with a final scene that's silly without being funny tacked on, and the credits hastily rolling after.

As I watch this movie, I'm reminded of another comedy about a buffoon playing secret-agent-man and lucking his way into saving the free world: 2003's Johnny English. English trumps Spies in just about every area: the villain is an actual person, not a vague and rather tired idea; the villain actually has an evil scheme, and isn't just out minding his own; and the defeating of that scheme has clear benefit to our hero and the world. Whether or not Rowan Atkinson is a greater comic talent than Dan Aykroyd and/or Chevy Chase in the early 80s is an argument I won't start here, because the answer is "yes".

If Johnny English didn't exist, I might hold this movie in slightly higher regard. Instead, it serves as the Coca-Cola to the Pepsi that is Spies Like Us: a superior effort that highlights the flaws in its adorable little competitor. Spies plot has been done elsewhere, and it has been done better.

Spies like Us is rated PG for language, comic violence and partial nudity.

Robert's Score: 5/10

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