I can’t say that I’ve ever been a real fan of James Bond. I can watch the movies, particularly the Connery’s but I have no real emotional investment. I know some people who really get down with the whole 007 routine. However, as awful as it was and as responsible as it is for the present global situation that we live in, the Cold War was great for movies; spy movies, in particular. Cloak and dagger is my bag, man, but I still never really got around to exploring the highly prolific period of the 60’s that kicked out dozens of eurospy movies. I suppose that because of that, OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies is probably not the movie to start with. Or maybe it is.
I should also start by saying that I don’t particularly give a shit about Austin Powers, either. It beat this movie to the punch in eurospy spoof territory but it’s also three movies that recycle the same jokes and catchphrases. The joke is lost on most audiences who just want to see him do that shh! routine one more time with Seth Green and remark, “Oh, behave…” OSS, is spoofing the same source material but where Austin powers is in your face with Mike Meyers’ personality and Starbucks product placement, Cairo, Nest of Spies is a much more focused jab and also laugh out loud funny from start to finish.
The movie begins on an airplane carrying Nazis to South America. When one decides to double cross the other, it is revealed that one is actually a French spy and the pilot of the plane, OSS 117 intervenes in time to kick the nazi out the door and right the plane without so much as breaking a sweat. Ten years later, 117 is nearly duped by the princess of Egypt, niece to King Farouk. The tussle lands him in Cairo, on assignment to make the middle east safe for French interests as well as find out what happened to his former partner, presumed dead. He is teamed up with a beautiful Muslim agent on his mission to sort out the mess that is Cairo, a nest of spies. Along the way there are a lot of fights, double crossings, intrigue, cultural insensitivity, grotesque ignorance and a musical number.
I did a little research on the OSS 117 legacy before writing this and discovered that OSS actually beats Ian Fleming’s Bond novels to the table by a few years. People have been writing spy novels since the earliest incarnations of military intelligence but Bond is more or less the yardstick by which all spy movies are measured. As a matter of fact, because of the Connery flicks, European exploitation houses had a reason to rush shitloads of these movies into production to cash in on the suave secret agent in a tux gimmick. Here, 117 is intended to be a send-up of Connery. Jean Dujardin is clearly going for that. The hair, the suit, the cocked eyebrow; the only thing missing is the martini and an Aston Martin with missiles in the headlights. All looks aside, Dujardin plays the role much more like Peter Sellers than Sean Connery, or even Mike Meyers. The character is particularly moronic. 117, played in the past with a suave sincerity, is replaced by a man who manages to get by on a serious lucky streak. A spy careening through one dangerous situation after another, dodging bullets and not ever realizing for a moment that his life may be in danger.
During one hilarious fight scene that seems to go on forever, yet never feels tired, 117 casually looks up at the Egyptian princess between karate chops and declares with a wry grin, “I love to fight.” before laying back into his opponent. In several similarly toned scenes, 117 pounds the crap out of a French operative who can never seem to get the password that identifies him as an agent right. These horrific displays of violence define the sort of character that you’re dealing with but there are many blanks left to fill. The mysoginistic, racist means that 117 dismisses Islam while trying to get into his partner’s panties nearly rounds him out but the character is capped off when 117 is more or less blamed for the present state of radical Islamic extremism.
It doesn’t end with goofy jokes and stabs at French culture, either. The star of the show is Dujardin, who practically floats the entire picture, himself, but the movie is occasionally peppered with absurd situations to kick it into overdrive. There is no subtlety here. 117 seems endlessly entertained by the fact that the chickens in the poultry warehouse that acts as his cover, can be silenced simply by turning off the lights. Expect to see this gag several times. Expect to laugh at it every time.
I often have a hard time watching foreign comedies. Particularly comedies in other languages. Half the joke is the timing over the language and when you’re reading subtitles, the funny can often be obscured by a literal translation or the delay in matching the titles to facial expressions or the actions of the cast. More often than not, the humor can be very cultural and in a couple of situations in OSS 117 I found myself trying to figure out what was going on. In several instances I resigned myself to the fact that something must have happened between France and Belgium back in the 50’s but damned if I know. I suppose I could look it up but… you know. Movies to watch, and all that. The movie is hardly plagued by these cultural roadblocks, though. It’s easy enough to figure out what’s going on and why it’s funny. Jean Dujardin is a very funny man.
To top it off, Cairo, Nest of Spies goes to great lengths to emulate the feel of flicks from this period by adopting popular filming techniques of the era and a groovy spy movie score. It often employs the day-for-night film technique which I love so much. It is blatantly obvious that the night scenes are shot in the day with a dark blue filter over the lens. There are also many, many rear-projection driving scenes, with the driver’s hands moving wildly over the steering wheel.
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies manages a strong attention to detail and nails down the funny to near perfection with a cast that is capable of making people laugh. It’s an exceptionally funny comedy that really deserved a worldwide release. Keep your eyes peeled and buy a region free DVD player. This is the sort of movie you might want one of those things for.