Ever since reading a review in Variety sometime last year, I’ve been hoping and hoping that OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies would get a North American theatrical release. Sadly, that hasn’t come to pass, so I took some advice on the Eurospy Forum and ordered the Region 1 DVD from Amazon.ca. Ordering directly from Canada works out to be much cheaper than shelling out fifty bucks for the import and then waiting six weeks to get it from Amazon.com. I had never seen any of the straightforward Sixties OSS 117 movies (although I do enjoy the soundtrack CD), but was still looking forward to seeing a modern spy movie shot as if it was from that era, even if the new movie was a spoof rather than the real thing.
Director Michel Hazanavicius's OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies resurrects novelist Jean Bruce’s titular hero as a comedic version of himself–as well as of James Bond and countless other Eurospy types. As played by Jean Dujardin, OSS 117 (aka Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath) comes off as a slightly more competent version of The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau. His competence comes in his fighting abilities, though, not in deductive reasoning. He represents everything that’s worst about the West and about colonialism, primarily in his total ignorance to other cultures. He laughs at the Arabic language and dismisses Islam as a fad that will never catch on. He’s hopelessly patriotic, believing his own government can do no wrong at all; he carries around pictures of French president Coty and distributes them to various Egyptians he meets. Dujardin’s version of OSS 117 is a clever comedic creation, smoothly sending up the annoying smugness and utter arrogance of all the Eurospy heroes of the Sixties. And he's got the crucial "spy eyebrows" down pat!
His mission takes him to Cairo, naturally, to investigate the disappearance of his predecessor and childhood friend, Jack. In Cairo his cultural obliviousness sidetracks him again and again, and it’s only with the aid of his beautiful local contact Larmina (Bernice Bejo) that he manages to get anything done. Despite her help, he still manages to offend her, her people and her religion time and again.
On one level, the movie is a sharp satire on global politics and Western ignorance, sending up the culture of the "Ugly American," even if it does so with a Frenchman instead. But on another level, it’s a rather silly slapstick spy farce. This ultimately impedes its success as a biting satire, because it dulls the blows with pratfalls, but the lighter tone is to the movie’s advantage. It comes off as a daft, enjoyable comedy that actually makes a few good points if you stop and think about it, but certainly doesn’t hit you over the head with them.
The Canadian DVD is a handsomely-packaged two disc set. It comes in a digipak with a sheet of stickers promoting the movie. (An odd but welcome extra.) Disc 2 contains the special features, including theatrical trailers and an interview with star Dujardin and a making-of. (Other regions apparently got a more in-depth documentary and deleted scenes.) Unfortunately, the special features don’t have English subtitles, and my French isn’t so good, so I didn’t get much out of them. Another reason to cross my fingers for an eventual American release!