“OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” – A.J. Hakari

From what I’ve viewed, there’s only so much a filmmaker can do with a spy spoof. In everything from Johnny English to Get Smart, the main gag seems to be portraying secret agents as hapless doofuses instead of the usual suave and debonair stereotype. After that, the bag of tricks tends to come up empty pretty fast. The French satire OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies has better luck than, say, Spy Hard at providing an entertaining parody of all things espionage-related. Still, though it has its clever moments, it’s not very funny on a consistent basis, more reliable for an occasional smirk than a barrel full of belly laughs.

Based on a long-running series of spy novels and an equally popular film series, OSS 117 pulls a Starsky & Hutch and pokes fun at its source material, rather than serve as a faithful adaptation. Jean Dujardin stars as the titular agent, a worldly man of action who’s just learned that a former partner of his has been murdered. It seems that his comrade was snooping around Cairo, having gotten himself mixed up in a strange plot involving a missing Russian freighter and a group of religious extremists. It doesn’t take much convincing for 117 to take on the case, setting forth on his investigation with the dead agent’s fetching secretary (Berenice Bejo) at his side. But our hero must take extra precautions and keep his wits about him, for Cairo is a veritable lion’s den of assassins, killers, and other criminal ilk, each one on a mission to stop 117 from digging too deep at all costs.

As you read my thoughts on OSS 117, keep in mind that I’ve become pretty difficult to please when it comes to comedies. It takes more than a few goofy reactions to awkward situations to make me laugh, though I don’t deny that most folks will probably be entertained. I understand perfectly what OSS 117 is getting at, what sort of angle on the spy genre it’s trying to play up. The fact is that I just didn’t laugh all that much, though it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Just about every corner of the film is lined with gags, and I appreciate the filmmakers for making most of them subtle, rather than shove aimless slapstick down our gullets. Some sections do a great job of wryly sending up James Bond-style conventions (including a conversation spoken entirely in metaphors that no one understands). But that’s not to say that most of the jokes register; there were plenty of moments when a scene flew by, and I had no clue if it was serious or not. When a movie is chiefly a parody, something like this taking place isn’t exactly a good sign.

Perhaps OSS 117’s biggest blunder is in playing things a little too straight. I’ve got to admit, the filmmakers have devised a rather handsome production design that does one hell of a job at evoking the atmosphere of a ’50s spy flick. But the film spends way too much of its time torn between paying homage to this genre and having a good jest at its expense. In fact, Dujardin could almost play his role completely straightforward. Looking like he just stepped off the set of “Mad Men,” he’s smooth and impeccably quaffed enough to give 007 a run for his money (the gorgeous ladies accompanying him are a big help, as well). But as it turns out, 117 is a lot more dense than Ian Fleming’s iconic superspy, and it’s his more moronic moments that earn the film’s biggest laughs. Dujardin has tons of fun playing 117 as so big of a dope, he tries to silence a mosque’s call for prayer because it woke him up.

If you enjoyed Get Smart, then chances are you’ll be pleased with OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. Though there’s not as much of an emphasis on action, the humor is staged in a pretty similar manner. I still think the Austin Powers series is about as hilarious as secret agent spoofs will ever get, but the few sly laughs that OSS 117 conjures up will keep most viewers occupied.

Rating: ★★☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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