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Non-Review Review: Austin Powers

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

It’s a little sad to think that Austin Powers is the last true comedic character that Mike Myers brought to the screen, and he was created nearly fifteen years ago. Yes, I have seen The Love Guru.

Powers to the People!

I don’t know what it is about the movie, but it’s actually ridiculously charming. My parents, hardly the most outrageous folks who ever lived, love the movie. My grandmother laughed up a storm when she sat through it. It’s hardly a comedic classic, or a high watermark of the genre – nor is it really that smart or sophisticated. At times, the movie can be downright crass (this is a movie where the protagonist utters the line “who does number two work for?” while drowning an assassin in a toilet bowl), but it never seems mean-spirited or aggressive.

There’s a sense of respect at the movie’s core, beneath all the reference to a Swedish Penis Enlarger or characters named Alotta Fagina. You get the sense in watching it that the people involved – the writers, the director, the actors – all have the utmost respect for the original source material, even as they lampoon it. After all, despite how harsh I might be in reviewing James Bond films, I still quite enjoy and appreciate them – even if it sometimes looks like I tear them to threads. And, as much as Austin might represent a parody of the British Invasion (with that iconic opening sequence calling to mind some of The Beatles movies), he’s a more direct parody of a certain British Secret Agent.

As much as fans of James Bond may like to pretend that the series only really descended into the realms of self-parody when Roger Moore took over the role, a lot of the fundamental flaws date back to Connery’s tenure in the role. Perhaps as a nod to this rarely acknowledged truth, or perhaps because lampooning Roger Moore would be too easy, or perhaps even because the Sean Connery films are more iconic, this comedy focuses a lot of its attention on the early films in the spy franchise. In some cases, it doesn’t even need to exaggerate them too much to get a laugh – the concepts are ridiculous enough when played straight, pointing out just how nostalgic we must be to accept them in the original films.

Oh, behave!

And so, we get a key moment (“it’s a man, man!”) borrowed from Thunderball, along with the character of Number Two. Austin’s evil opponent, Dr. Evil, is obviously Donald Pleasance’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld, down to the facial scar. “In Japan, men come first,” the movie’s token evil babe remarks, having clearly watched her copy of You Only Live Twice. The Los Vegas sequence owes a lot to Sean Connery’s last official appearance in the role, Diamonds Are Forever.

Random Task is pretty much Oddjob from Goldfinger – and the line “who throws their shoe?” is funnier now than when it was written. Dr. No wears a cheap radiation suit from Dr. No and keeps “mutated, ill-tempered sea bass” to dispose of any intruders. In fact, the only overt reference that I can see to Roger Moore’s era (apart from the frequent appearance of the Union flag, echoing The Spy Who Loved Me) is the “unnecessarily slow dipping mechanism” used to lower Vanessa and Austin into the pool of hungry fish, perhaps inspired by the device from the climax of Live And Let Die.

It’s also worth taking a moment before we continue to acknowledge the fantastic work of George S. Clinton, who composed the soundtrack to the film. The score actually sounds like a classic John Barry James Bond film, played entirely straight. Indeed, in many ways it “out Bonds” much of the work done by current Bond composer David Arnold. Just don’t tell him that I said that. It could actually have been a classic Bond soundtrack – it’s that good.

Anyway, I think the key to the movie’s success is the character of Austin himself. He’s a lot hairier and possibly a lot less smooth, but he is essentially the classic iteration of Bond brought to the present day and deprived of Sean Connery’s suave accent and handsome good looks. The movie removes the polish from the character – lifting the veil of nostalgia through which we frequently view Bond.

Alotta trouble...

Witness, for example, his attempted “seduction” of Vanessa on his jet – an attempt which consists of tricking her over to the bed, faking some turbulence and repeatedly falling around as an excuse to grope her (“Oh! I fell over! Oh! I fell over again!”). Having watched the early Bond movies recently, it’s not too far removed from Bond’s own manner of securing sex (at least Austin doesn’t blackmail a nurse, hold a woman down in the hay or rig a deck of tarot cards). Even though he’s a relic, he comes across as quite sweet, refusing to kiss Vanessa because she’s drunk.

And yet the character of Austin is somehow still sympathetic and charming. The movie makes no bones of the fact that a lot of this charm comes from the fact that he’s essentially harmless – a buffoon who doesn’t care about geo-politics as much as buying a Tab soda to look cool. “We don’t want to have to bail you guys out again, like in WW 2,” an American general remarks as they unfreeze Austin to deal with Doctor Evil, a moment which underscores a lot of the charm of the James Bond films – England isn’t a superpower, so sending a spy overseas to topple dictators and meddle in international affairs is seen as harmless fun rather than dangerous politics. When a gambler suggests that Austin is dressed that way because he’s part of the casino show, he replies that he’s British. “Sorry,” the American replies.

Perhaps I am over-analysing. A lot of the movie’s appeal comes from the fact that it is quite consistently hilarious. Whether it’s poking fun at the rate of inflation or Dr. Evil’s outdated evil plans, or playing with the fact that henchmen have lives outside work, there’s any number of wonderful moments which betray an in-depth knowledge of the subject that the movie is lampooning, so much so that “why don’t ya just shoot him?” (a sentiment echoed by Dr. Evil’s wayward son, Scott) has become something that I have been known to routinely shout at televisions.

It doesn’t hurt that the ensemble is so damn wonderful. I know the rumours that Mike Myers is a horror to work with, but he’s great here as both Austin and Dr. Evil. Perhaps his extended roles in the sequels were a bit much, but you can see why the studio agreed to it – it works well here. Robert Wagner has a wonderful gift for comedy, and I actually have a lot of sympathy for Number Two – the evil overlord who just wants to invest prudently (my favourite sight gag reveals that he has packed a “fembot” into his suitcase as he abandons the evil layer). Michael York is great as Basil Exposition. Seth Green has a bit of fun as Scott Evil. Will Ferrell, Tom Arnold and Christian Slater pop in for a few scenes. Elizabeth Hurley isn’t fantastic, but she’s decent – and any excuse to see Mimi Rogers is worthwhile.

Austin Powers is great fun. It’s entertaining, charming and witty. It’s the spy you’ll love…

4 Responses

  1. I remember thinking how good Austin Powers was when it was first released. It felt, in some ways, like a breath of fresh air. Mike Myers was revolutionising things and it worked for a little while. The 18 point turn in Doctor Evil’s evil factory is still one of the best gags I’ve ever seen.

    • I love that gag. My own personal favourite moment is still Alotta Fagina. Just because it’s not even that far from Pussy Galore.

  2. I’m glad you’re doing these during “JB January.” I’m thinking of reviewing the Peter Sellers “Casino Royale” and possibly “Never Say Never Again.”

    • I’ve never seen that Casino Royale. I remember being quite disappointed with Never Say Never, if only because it was an older Bond in Thunderball. I’m surprised that the company never ran with the option of developing original “Bond” movies that the lawsuit allowed.

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