Few cinematic stereotypes seem as oxymoronic as the world-famous secret agent. International men of mystery readily surrender to film spoofs because the James Bond image clearly has so few ties to the real world. Blame Ian Fleming and Sean Connery for elevating intelligence agents as the embodiment of manliness, when the reality involves more tedium than glamour.
Since movie spies typically live out male fantasies, they easily lend themselves to parodies of masculinity, action clichés and government foolishness. Over-the-top cover operatives even come in different vintages, as shown by three new films: The French film OSS 177: Lost in Rio lampoons sleek 1960s cloak-and-dagger, while MacGruber and, less obviously, The A-Team, carry the high-testosterone TV shows and blockbusters of the 1980s to absurd conclusions.
Michel Hazanavicius directed one of the best film satires of the past decade with the original OSS 177: Cairo, Nest of Spies. An irreverent adaptation of Jean Bruce's series of novels, Cairo used the adventures of French super agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (Jean Dujardin), aka "double-one seven," as a pitch-perfect pastiche of the early Bond films. With jokes comparable to Mel Brooks at his prime, the first film also contained an ingenious subtext involving post-9/11 geopolitics as Hubert displayed an epic ignorance of Muslim culture while blundering about Egypt.
Lost in Rio's plot lacks the same satirical power. Hubert embarks on an amusingly sordid mission to Brazil to pay off a blackmailer who threatens to reveal French collaborators with the Nazis. While in Rio he contends with luchadores, a CIA agent named Trumendous, and Nazi-hunting members of Israel's Mossad, including a comely colonel (Louise Monot).
Hubert inadvertently drops acid with some young hippies and generally behaves like a male chauvinist pig and accidental anti-Semite. But the plot never achieves the real-world relevance of the first film and some jokes stubbornly fail to translate. Monot, however pretty, proves aptly named as his monotonous foil.
Dujardin still gives a winningly oblivious comedic performance, capturing the moments when Hubert's cockiness turns awkward: His merde-eating grin freezes, his eyes dart from side to side, and you can practically see the flop sweat travel down his brow. But Hazanavicius seems more excited by the fashions and stylistic conventions of the era than the script.
At least OSS 177 has as snappy wardrobe and infectious good cheer. Will Forte's title character in MacGruber's knuckle-dragging machismo stays more on the level of a feces-flinging primate. And I mean that pretty literally: At one point, U.S. super agent MacGruber crashes a fancy party of an evil arms dealer (Val Kilmer) and leaves an "upper-decker" in his bathroom. MacGruber's alpha male swagger collapses in the face of adversity, however. After bullying a by-the-book rookie (superb straight man Ryan Phillippe), MacGruber suffers a setback and tearfully offers him sexual favors.
The line between MacGruber's overt action parody and The A-Team's straight-faced silliness proves as thin as a trip wire: The two films practically feature the same scenes. MacGruber's montage of assembling his tough sidekicks finds a parallel when Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) busts his comrades out of prison. Just as bruiser B.A. Baracus (wrestler Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) finds power in his mohawk, so does MacGruber treasure his plaid shirt, jeans and khaki vest.
The A-Team rushes between scenes of skydiving tanks and three-card-monte-style games with cranes and shipping containers that breezily cross the line of plausibility. Between Neeson's gravitas and Sharlto Copley's rabbity comic relief, the audience easily forgives its intentional excesses. Given that MacGruber underperformed at the box office and OSS 177 belongs to the art-house circuit, The A-Team will probably connect to audiences who don't bother distinguishing between laughing at and laughing with swaggering men of action.
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