Unless we’re talking about John Le Carré, modern spy movies, with their exotic locations, over-the-top action set pieces and beautiful women popping out of the most unusual locations to aid our protagonist, are ideal fodder for spoofing. Since even some of the more grounded Bond flicks are products of pure male ego boost fantasy, a slight push on their tone can easily veer towards comedy. Of course the obvious go-to spy comedy for our generation is the Austin Powers franchise, but the post ’60s rise of Bond culture has given us a bevy of underrated examples from the genre. With the current release of Johnny English Strikes Again, third in a franchise that’s the opposite of underrated, let’s use our Q gadgets to dive into some of the most overlooked spy comedies.
Before writer John Ridley funneled his anger about the history of institutionalized racism into the devastating 12 Years a Slave, he channeled it in the opposite tonal direction as the co-writer of Undercover Brother, a Bond-meets-Blaxploitation satire that’s sometimes sloppy but mostly spot-on. (Ridley also was the creator of the animated web series it’s based on.) What we get is basically an old-fashioned Bond flick seen from the prism of contemporary African-American issues. The mysterious bad guy in his lair in known only as “The Man,” whose sole mission is to keep black people in their place. The “Bond Girls” are split into two obvious categories: White She Devil (Denise Richards) and Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), the dichotomy of African-American male sexual attraction. At the center of it all is Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin in a rare starring role), the badass spy whose superior skills and Angela-Davis-on steroids-afro are ready to break some feet off in The Man’s ass. Griffin has just enough charisma and presence to pull off the part, but Dave Chapelle as Conspiracy Brother, a hilarious take on that one guy everyone knows who sees a government conspiracy behind literally everything, not only steals the show, but gives us a taste of what to expect from the legendary Chapelle’s Show, which would premiere a year after Undercover Brother.
The more schlocky elements of ’60s Bond certainly provided a lot of inspiration for Austin Powers, but if you need to know where its entire tone is transplanted from, look no further than the tongue-in-cheek Bond-success-coattail rider Our Man Flint. Produced at the height of Connery Bond’s popularity, Our Man Flint is the typical American answer that looks at the exaggeration of ultimate male fantasy in Bond films and says, “Hold my beer.” One Bond girl is for pussies, the American super spy Derek Flint (the cooler than a cucumber James Coburn) doesn’t leave his swanky pad—where he has trained his dogs to be receptionists—without at least four exotic hotties on his arms. He has downright supernatural intelligence, his karate chop (sound familiar?) can cut a man in half, and he’s so cold blooded, that he can literally stop his heart for hours at a time. Just in case you didn’t get how much better he is than Bond, the movie even has a sequence where he kicks the crap out of a Connery lookalike spy, codenamed 0008, for absolutely no reason. Instead of going the easy slapstick parody route, which the 1967 Casino Royale tried and failed miserably, Our Man Flint straddles a thin balance between camp and straight action. The comedy comes from the giddy exaggeration of the hero’s abilities and the borderline gaudy ’60s aesthetic that surrounds him, not a calculated takedown of the genre’s clichés. If you think the slapstick in spy comedies can be too much, and humorously think Connery’s Bond isn’t man enough, this is the flick for you. (If you enjoy it, there’s also the slightly inferior sequel, In Like Flint.)
One common sub-genre in spy comedies presents regular everyday schlubs finding themselves as unwilling heroes in the middle of world-altering international action and intrigue. This fish-out-of-water formula allows the general audience to imagine how they might act if they were planted in the middle of some high stakes espionage plot, and how they would screw up endlessly, before somehow singlehandedly saving the day, of course. John Landis’ Spies Like Us features two bumbling, self-centered low-level government employees (Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd) who cheat their way into what they think are a bunch of cushy, high-paying jobs, but end up as expendable patsies for a nuclear game of tag between USA and the Russians. The film is a consistently entertaining Cold War era benchmark for this sub-genre. The manic comedic chemistry and energy between Chase and Aykroyd is spot on, and gets us through the occasional tired and easy sketch-like setups. The genius, anxiety-ridden sequence where the two morons are tasked with operating on a dying man is alone worth giving this one your hour and forty minutes.
Remember The Artist, the Best Picture Oscar winner that left the pop culture zeitgeist as quickly as it entered it? What if I were to tell you that the exact same director and main cast previously produced another humorous love letter to another beloved genre, and did a better job at it than their overrated send-off to silent-era melodramas? Cairo, Nest of Spies takes the entirely too self-serious OSS 117 novels, popular in France during WWII as a means of boosting confidence in French intelligence and warfare, and plants its own homegrown version of Inspector Clouseau, the equally narcissistic and clueless spy Hubert Bonisseur (Jean Dujardin), to protect the innocent from nefarious terrorists. Le dieu save us all. Dujardin is perfectly affable as he effortlessly switches between charming and buffoonish, but his character’s odd couple dynamic with his actually talented counterpart, Larmina (Berenice Bejo), makes OSS 117 stand out. Of course Hubert’s innate sexism will never let him admit how much better Larmina is at killing bad guys, while Larmina of course has to be the frustrated but focused woman who’s always burdened with the knowledge of her superiority to all the men who surround her. Director Michel Hazanavicius settles on a nice balance between taking down the uber alpha male archetype by a couple of notches and a tender tribute to its nostalgic allure. The sequel, Lost in Rio, is just as good and the two make for a perfect double feature.
This goofy, Monty Python-level silly, yet surprisingly narratively engaging parody of WWII-era propagandistic American spy thrillers is, for some maddening reason, not as popular or as well-known as Airplane and Naked Gun, two other groundbreaking comedy classics from the Zucker, Abrams, Zucker team. The fish-out-of-water plot features Elvis Presley-meets-The Beach Boys rock star Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) finding himself as the savior of a group of anti-East German revolutionaries, and is of course used as a shoestring to hang as many cliché-skewering gags per minute as possible. As opposed to Airplane, where the parody was focused on story-based tropes, Top Secret’s gags mostly lean on bits that expose the various visual trickery that Hollywood uses to sell its fantasies. Looking from the inside of a train, you think the train is moving away from the station, when actually it’s the station that’s moving. A phone in the foreground of a shot turns out to actually be as massive as it looks. Cows seen through binoculars casually cross the masking of the POV effect. An Indiana Jones type map turns into a game of Pac-Man. The list goes on. Kilmer’s blistering charisma makes us fall in love with Nick Rivers the way the supporting characters are supposed to, providing the narrative glue that keeps it from feeling like a bunch of episodic sketches. Top Secret is the prototypical underrated comedy masterpiece.