Feb 27, 2007

DVD Review: The Kommissar X Collection

I had long heard of Kommissar X, and been entranced by the evocative posters, but I’d never seen one of the movies until now. Boy, am I glad that Retromedia put these out on DVD! They’re certainly not the peak of the genre, not by a long shot, but they’re extremely fun Eurospy movies for both the right and wrong reasons.

I’ve already mentioned the Eurospy trend toward "loathsome heroes" (a term I’ve stolen from the website Chefelf, talking about ‘80s barbarian movies, to which it equally applies). I think it’s just what happens when writers try to duplicate James Bond without fully grasping the character, and when actors without the effortless charm of Sean Connery or James Coburn occupy the parts. Kommissar X (who, rather disappointingly, is a private detective and not any sort of Kommissar at all, X or otherwise), aka Joe Walker (Tony Kendall), has to be the most loathsome Eurospy hero I’ve encountered yet. Which is not really a criticism of the films, merely an observation. It’s not a criticism because his loathsomeness doesn’t hamper the viewer’s enjoyment of the movie; in fact, it enhances it. Eurospy is a peculiar genre that’s more about the trappings than the characters, and it’s often just as much fun to watch a hero you hate as one you love. Such is the case here.

What does Joe do that makes him so annoying? Well, for starters he’s always punching people, whether they’re his friends or enemies, and always doing it with a smirk. Not a smirk that says, "oh, brother, now I’ve gotta punch you," but a smirk that says, "boy, I sure love punching people who are weaker than me." For another thing, he’s always kissing beautiful women. I know, I know, that’s what spies do! But Joe doesn’t just kiss the ones who like him; he kisses all of them, from stewardesses waiting on him to pretty girls he passes in the street, whether they want it or not. (He assumes they do, but from the looks they sometimes give him afterwards it’s clear that he’s not really that good a judge of character.) Finally, Joe’s just plain irresponsible. Not in a likable, Mel-Gibson-in-Lethal-Weapon sort of way; in a sociopathic sort of way. He seems totally oblivious to the needs or wishes of anyone but himself, and doesn’t think twice about setting a whole pier on fire to make his getaway.

Luckily his partner and (for some reason) friend Captain Tom Rowland (Brad Harris) is always around to, literally, put out his fires. "You might burn down the entire city," he has to explain to Walker, as one would to a four-year-old playing with matches. Walker gets the idea and starts to help out by unspooling an extra fire hose, but he loses interest in dousing the flames as soon as he discovers how much fun it is to spray women with the hose. After he knocks one down with the spray, he just keeps blasting her with the water, cackling gleefully. (See what I mean? Total sociopath!) Granted, she is an assassin, but she’s helpless while he’s spraying her, and that doesn’t excuse his utter delight at watching her wriggle around on the dock, soaked. (And it doesn’t stop her from hooking up with him later, either!)

As you might gather from Joe’s behavior, the Kommissar X movies are about the most chauvinist of any of all Eurospy titles, and that’s saying a lot. They make the Sixties Bond movies look like they were written by Susan Faludi. But surely that’s part of the joke, right? Right...?

Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but it’s easy to laugh at today. As are all of the movies’ weaknesses, but their strengths are just as much fun. They’re often shot in exotic locations, and the sets may not be Ken Adam, but they’re decent knock-offs. The women are all quite beautiful, and the villains delightfully villainous. Each movie features at least a few good fights and exciting chases (some very impressive indeed), and the music is exactly what you want from a Eurospy movie, with an infectious (if obnoxious) theme song called "I Love You, Joe Walker." And, above all, Harris and Kendall have a good rapport together and are undeniably fun to watch on screen, even if one of them is a total prat.

Retromedia’s triple-feature DVD is presented full-screen, which is a pity, because these movies are obviously cropped. I assume this is because all they had access to were 16mm prints, probably made for TV broadcast. The prints themselves are not restored at all. They’re blurry and sometimes out of focus. So Darling, So Deadly is in the worst shape. Whole chunks of the print appear to be missing, and what’s there is badly faded, particularly at the beginning of each reel, when it’s almost entirely red. There’s even a botched reel change at one point, preserved for all time on the DVD transfer! It’s a shame that Retromedia didn’t have access to better elements, but I certainly can’t fault them for failing to do a full-scale restoration. I can’t imagine it would be cost-effective for the niche market this disc appeals to. These movies are a joy to view, and I’d much rather they be released with sub-par prints than not released at all, which are probably the only options.

As it stands, I really hope every spy fan out there buys a copy and they sell enough to warrant a second collection containing the remaining four Kommissar X movies. Despite the print quality, and despite featuring a deplorable hero, these movies are tons of fun. Death Is Nimble, Death Is Quick, in particular, is an exemplary Eurospy title, boasting breathtaking scenery, impressive stunts, and exciting setpieces that manage to look much higher-budget than they are. (Although I imagine they are substantially higher budgeted than many Eurospy films.) This is an absolutely essential DVD for any spy collection.

For full reviews of each individual title, please see:

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