Movie trends come and go, but filmgoers are pretty much always in the mood for a good spy thriller. And why not? Spies are suave, they lead lives of dashing high adventure, and they make their own rules. They’re also pretty easy to make fun of, judging from the number of screwball spy spoofs Hollywood has given us over the last few decades. From Woody Allen and Mike Myers to Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase, the secret agent parody has been a hallowed rite of passage for some of our finest funnymen. This week, with Rowan Atkinson returning to the genre in Johnny English Reborn (tagline: “One Man. One Mission. No Chance”), we decided now would be the perfect time to take a fond look back at some of our favorite clueless, bumbling, and/or completely accidental spies. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is Total Recall!
With one of the most successful post-SNL careers out there, Mike Myers has given us a long line of memorable characters — slacker icon Wayne Campbell, lovable oaf Shrek, and the chunk-toothed international man of mystery, Austin Powers. Bringing the spy spoof genre out of dormancy in 1997 (just as GoldenEye did for the Bond series two years earlier), Myers gave us the often-randy misadventures of Powers, followed by two blockbuster, critically drubbed sequels. But “when you watch Mike Myers in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, you remember why he became a star on Saturday Night Live and in Wayne’s World,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman.
The cheeky Carry On geezers were the first to skewer their countryman James Bond — as well as Graham Greene, The Maltese Falcon, and others — in this 1964 romp, which is rife with the comedy troupe’s trademark ribald innuendo. With characters called naughty names like Agents Crump, Honeybutt and Bind — aka Agent 000, or Double O, Oh! — and doing battle with the evil criminal syndicate STENCH (the Society for the Total Extinction of Non-Conforming Humans), Carry On Spying is typically bawdy, but it also manages its share of clever spy satire. Indeed, as TV Guide declared, “it’s “One of the bright spots in the Carry On series.”
Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, initially found its way to the big screen as a direct satire of the character in 1967, comprised of a series of sight gags, campy innuendo, and psychedelic mind trips that culminates in one big, chaotic orgy of lunacy. Cherry picking elements from the book, the film stars David Niven as the “original” 007, now retired, who’s asked to discover why international agents are turning up dead or missing. Unfortunately, the film was fraught with all kinds of problems off screen — Peter Sellers quit midway through the production due to beef with Orson Welles, and the movie burned through several directors and rewrites — and it shows in the final product. Nevertheless, a few critics defended the film, like the Northwest Herald’s Jeffrey Westhoff, who called it “so bizarre, so wrongheaded, and so overblown that it’s actually enjoyable.”
Back in the 1960s, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry created a TV series called Get Smart specifically to poke fun at both James Bond and Inspector Clousseau. Contemporary audiences were reintroduced to Agent 86 in the form of Steve Carrell in 2006’s Get Smart, in which an inexperienced desk jockey (Carell) is promoted during a time of emergency and paired up with spy veteran Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) to bring down the evil crime syndicate KAOS. Despite Carell’s natural charm and a solid supporting cast that includes Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, and Terence Stamp, critics largely considered Get Smart merely adequate as a spoof of the genre, but a few, like Rich Cline of Shadows on the Wall, found that “the film doesn’t have the sharp hysteria of the series, and it gets a bit over-serious at times, but it’s still a thoroughly entertaining film with terrific characters all its own.”
A high-water mark of 1960s movie camp, Modesty Blaise goes so far into surreal silliness that it may be the first spy spoof to parody itself — that is, if you can make much sense of the gonzo grooviness. Based on a tongue-in-cheek British comic strip featuring the titular Bondette, Blaise stars Italian actress Monica Vitti as a globetrotting, leather-jumpsuit-wearing heroine recruited by British intelligence to tangle with a diamond thief (Dirk Bogarde) and the era’s most garish pop art sets. Critics were largely baffled at the time, though the movie has since garnered a cult, even subversive reputation over the years — as Derek Adams of Time Out noted: “Under the non-stop stream of jokes lies a bitter edge of malice, directed not only against the genre itself but against a society which trusts its politicians and its generals.”
French slapstick is famously known to have a hard time appealing abroad, with exception made to spy joints OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio, which riff on a range of targets, including James Bond and the OSS 117 series itself. Its origin lies in a series of French spy espionage books, and subsequent films based on those books. Resurrecting OSS 177 in 2006, director Michel Hazanavicius and comedian Juan Dujardin dress the character up in a satirical tux. “[The] movie travels familiar ground, with a nod to Airplane, Top Secret and that whole genre,” Roger Ebert writes, “Even compared to them, it pushes things just a little — not too far, but toward the loony.”
Given the absurdities inherent in the James Bond movies, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that 007 parodies were everywhere in the mid-1960s. Our Man Flint succeeded better than most thanks to a suave performance from James Coburn as shagadelic super spy Derek Flint. The silliest aspects of the Bond films are skewered here: we’ve got the acronym-happy organizations, remarkably versatile gadgets (including a cigar lighter with 83 different uses), and armies of bikinied babes. In other words, Our Man Flint was doing the Austin Powers thing while Sean Connery was still playing Bond. “Coburn is plainly enjoying himself so much, and the trimmings are so stylish, that it’s impossible not to enjoy,” wrote Kim Newman of Empire Magazine.
John Landis (Animal House, Coming to America) must have had a lot of fun back in the 1970s and 1980s, crafting legendary comedies with some of the best talent around. In 1985, the director paired up with Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase for this send-up of Cold War era international espionage, in which the two SNL vets play bumbling, wannabe agents who are dropped into Soviet territory as decoys but end up completing the mission themselves. Full of one-liners, visual gags, and explosions, Spies Like Us was a little too silly to be a true actioner but, in the eyes of most critics, also a little too thin on effective humor to make for a fully entertaining comedy. Still, the film is not without its fans, like Moviehole’s Clint Morris, who concedes that Spies Like Us “meddles uneasily between comedy and action-adventure, but Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd keep you watching right way through.”
How silly can you get? Well, when you’re in expert spoofmeisters Zucker-Abraham-Zucker’s world, the answer is, pretty silly. Top Secret! successfully lampoons both espionage flicks and Elvis Presley musicals with staggering levity — it’s pretty amazing how many stereotypes, pop culture references, and goofy sight gags are packed into this movie without it feeling too busy. Val Kilmer is Nick Rivers, a vapid American singer who rocks the Soviet bloc on a goodwill tour, but soon finds himself joining forces with a ragtag bunch of French Resistance fighters with names like Avant Garde and Chocolate Mousse. Few movies walk the divide between smart and stupid as deftly as Top Secret!; as Variety wrote, the movie “shares the same wonderful wacky attitude that allows just about any kind of gag to come flowing in and out of the picture at the strangest times.”
The words “starring Eddie Griffin, Chris Kattan, and Denise Richards” aren’t generally a sign that you’re about to see a classic film, but this fast-paced spy spoof is loads better than anything titled Undercover Brother has any right to be. Satirizing James Bond and blaxploitation in one fell, impeccably Afroed swoop, it offers the best of both worlds: enough wacky humor to include Richards as a character named “White She-Devil,” and enough thought-provoking subtext to inspire Film Threat’s Marcus D. Russell to argue, “a strong case could be made to use this as the initial tool in our school systems to begin serious discussions about race and class.”