Film Review: Spies Like Us (1985)

in Movies & TV Shows5 days ago


Russia and United States recently had important negotiations, which ultimately failed to have any meaningful result, thus making the prospect of full blown military conflict between those two powers, including its nuclear variant, more likely. Many would like to ignore this development and take comfort in similar situations in the past, namely during the Cold War, when the relations were much worse and likelihood of Third World War much greater. But even in those dark times, Hollywood found the way to turn those dark subjects in the source of humour, and Cold War inspired comedies. One of the commercially most successful was Spies Like Us, 1985 film directed by John Landis, although the word “inspired” is not among those that come to mind of those who actually bothered to watch it.

Two protagonists are Emmet Fitz-Hume (played by Chevy Chase), wisecracking minor US State Department official who dreams of career advancement despite apparent lack of skills and work habits; Austin Millbarge (played by Dan Aykroyd, who also co-wrote the script) is nerdish all-knowing Pentagon analyst who dreams of advancing out of his cellar office while being abused by clearly less competent superiors. Two of them try to improve their career prospects by taking the test that would allow them to take part in clandestine work. Much to their surprise, they are not only accepted but actually chosen to be trained and afterwards deployed in mysterious and apparently quite delicate covert intelligence mission within Soviet Union. At least this is what they believe, while, in actuality, they were chosen as worthless and expendable assets and to serve as decoys while the real operatives do the proper work. However, after they land and Pakistan and begin their journey via Afghanistan, Fitz-Hume and Millbarge, by set of fortunate circumstances, avoid KGB traps and actually reach their destination, when they learn that their mission involves taking control of Soviet mobile ICBM unit and launching nuclear projectile against Continental United States for the purpose of testing “Star Wars”-like defence system that would make many US generals and government officials rich.

It is very likely that this film was envisioned as some sort of darkly humorous take on very serious prospects of nuclear annihilation in the same vein as classic Cold War spoof Doctor Strangelove. Unfortunately, in order for that approach to work, sense of humour was required and the authors apparently had it in rather short supply. Most jokes that actually work in the film are spent in the early segments of the film, during the scenes that feature protagonists’ adventures in training camp. Once their mission begins, John Landis seems to play the story almost straight, compensating the lack of jokes with action, some decent special effects and use of locations in Norway and Morroco. Humour that remains is directed almost exclusively to the relatively small set of hardcore cinephiles. Spies Like Us was actually written as modern-day spoof/homage of Road to..., series of Classic Hollywood musical comedies starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (the latter appears in brief cameo), and which are probably completely unknown to anyone but very exclusive number of fans of old cinema. Same can, although to lesser degree, said for scenes that feature clips of the film featuring Ronald Reagan (US President at the time of production) during his early days, when he was genuine Hollywood star. Finally, Landis, for some reason, decided to fill Spies Like Us with cameos featuring many important and renewed film makers (among others, Terry Gilliam, Costa Gavras and Ray Harryhausen), but they mostly don’t serve any purpose other than indulge cinephiles’ snobbery.

Spies Like Us nevertheless had good results at the box-office, although the critics were hostile (and mostly remain so to this day). This can be best explained with clever use of title song by Paul McCartney which proved to be big hit (and music video as an excellent tool of promotion). Having Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd as stars while they were at the height of popularity as Hollywood comics didn’t hurt either, although both of them are rather uninspired and their characters don’t create much sympathy among the audience. Even the obligatory romantic subplots look forced and sometimes questionable, like in the scene when Fitz-Hume uses “clever” pretext to touch breasts of female operative Karen Boyer played by Donna Dixon, Aykroyd’s real life wife. Lack of inspiration can be found in not so convincing last minute plot twist that allows protagonists and the world to evade nuclear Armageddon. Even the epilogue scene, which spoofs negotiations very much like those in real life few days ago, looks unconvincing and lame, but to the authors’ credit, gives this film incredibly prophetic ability, showing the exact outcome of Cold War few years before its end and, indirectly, explaining cause of many of today’s woes.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

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