May 11, 2010

Movie Review: OSS 117: Lost In Rio (2009)

Director Michel Hazanavicius and co-writer Jean-François Halin have achieved the near-impossible and made a sequel that’s almost as good as the original. Gag-for-gag, shot-for-shot, OSS 117: Lost in Rio (as it’s called in America, anyway; I prefer the French title of OSS 117: Rio ne repond plus, which translates roughly as the more Eurospy-sounding Rio Doesn’t Answer) goes pretty much toe-to-toe with its predecessor. If the whole enterprise feels slightly less than the first film (OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies), that’s only because the concept (painstakingly recreating a Fifties or Sixties spy movie and playing up the era’s latent chauvinism, racism and homophobia for laughs) is no longer original. But the team has done a wonderful job of combating that problem by getting broader and bolder with certain aspects, such as the lead character’s casual racism (this time mostly channeled as antisemitism). And they’re lucky in that they have one tremendous crutch to lean on as well, which is lead actor Jean Dujardin. In his version of Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (now a French secret agent as opposed to an American one, as in Jean Bruce’s novels and the original film series), Dujardin has created a lasting comic persona in league with Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau and Leslie Nielson’s Frank Drebin, and far outshining lesser pretenders like Mike Meyers’ Austin Powers in the process. Dujardin has this role down pat, and he’s absolutely brilliant in it Not only does he uncannily look the part of a slick-haired Sixties secret agent (channeling the young Sean Connery at times), but he possesses all the requisite charm and charisma to make us still root for him despite the bumbling character’s many, many flaws! Its no mean feat (on the part of the writers and the actor) to create a hero so intolerant and yet still likable at the same time. He’s the Archie Bunker of the spy world.

As with 2006's OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, OSS 117:Lost In Rio is a loving send-up of the Eurospy genre (and series whose name it bears), the spy genre at large, Sixties films in general and, of course, the James Bond series in specific. I think Hazanavicius himself put it best when he told the audience I saw this film with on Friday night that there are really two movies here: one that you see, which is a loving tribute to the movies of the Sixties, and another which you hear, which is a biting satire of them and the era that spawned them. That’s exactly why both of his OSS 117 films work so well–and hold so much appeal to fans of the Eurospy genre. This isn’t hateful parody, but loving parody. You’ll have as much fun spotting the countless specific visual references to various films of the time (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Murderer’s Row, Harper, The Thomas Crown Affair, North by Northwest, Fun in Acapulco, That Man in Rio and OSS 117: Mission for a Killer to name but a few) as you do laughing out loud at the sight gags (both clever and cheap–equally funny) and Hubert’s shocking and unrelenting conversational faux pas. (Some of his dialogue gets as awkward as an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.)

The degree of detail in recreating not only the era itself (in costumes and set decoration), but the style of filmmaking of the era is so impressive that it ends up creating references even where they weren’t intended. I could have sworn that Hazanavicius was attempting to deliberately evoke such Brazil-set Eurospy adventures as Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die and Dick Smart 2.007, yet he claims not to have seen those. But the close attention to period detail in his filmmaking techniques is so spot-on that when you combine that very specific lighting style, those wonderfully garish color schemes, the insertion of intentionally grainy stock footage shots (such as the jetliner landing in Rio, a subtle joke that cracks me up every time I see the film simply because the shots of jetliners in these movies–even the Bonds–are always stock shots of a noticeably inferior quality to the rest of the film!) and the expert use of rear projection for driving scenes (complete with all those unnecessary, jerky turns of the steering wheel actors seemingly couldn’t help but throw in, even though they rarely match the turns taken on the road behind them) combined with that favorite Eurospy setting all add up to–intentionally or not–recall any number of half-forgotten Sixties flicks. Hazanavicius has said that his goal was to create something that people might catch on TV with the volume down and think was an actual Sixties film, and in that he succeeds brilliantly. If you love that era of filmmaking, then chances are you’ll love OSS 117: Lost in Rio as well.

While OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies was its own animal (again full of references to other films–most prominently Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and early Bonds), the sequel actually adheres pretty closely to the template of one of Andre Hunebelle’s original OSS 117 films, OSS 117: Furia a Bahia (aka Mission For a Killer), starring Frederick Stafford. Like that film, the new one begins at a Swiss ski resort before the action shifts to Rio de Janeiro (where Hubert is spied on at the airport and then unwittingly gets in a car driven by an enemy) and eventually out of the city into the Amazon rain forest (again via crashing airplane) to a secret neo-Nazi headquarters. While it follows the same basic map, the new film is certainly not a remake. The Macguffin is totally new–a microfilm list of Nazi collaborators in the French government (no wonder it’s on microfilm, comments the idealistic Hubert; it must be a very small list!)–as are all the characters and incidents. Hazanavicius’ film throws in hippies, crocodiles, vengeful Chinese gangsters (frequent targets of Hubert’s racist comments), masked Mexican wrestlers, a sweaty CIA agent and a Nazi costume party. Hubert’s new leading lady is Dolores Koulechov (Louise Monot), a beautiful red-haired Mossad agent introduced wearing Ann-Margaret’s dress from Murderers’ Row. She respects the legend of OSS 117 and is honored to be working with him... until he opens his mouth. Everything he says is either sexist or antisemitic (the idea of Jews hunting Nazis amuses him to no end, but not so the stern-faced Mossad agents backing her up), which quickly puts a damper on any relationship he imagines developing between them.

The gags are broader than in the first film, and quickly result to nudity (when in doubt, show Hubert’s butt), but most of them hit their targets, nonetheless. A slow motion hospital chase in danger of dragging on too long is saved not by cheap glimpses of Dujardin’s derriere through his hospital gown (not once, but twice!), but by Ludovic Bource’s fantastic score, as bombastic and propulsive as if it were accompanying a high-speed car chase. Once again, there’s a deft mixture of smart satire and outright slapstick at play*, and the biggest laughs come from some of the riskier jokes from the former category: after hearing the head Nazi’s speech about his martial dreams for a Fifth Reich (because attempts at creating a Fourth Reich are so played out), the borderline facist Hubert dismisses the Nazis as “Utopists.” He instantly wins back any offended audience members by following up with his own speech, pleading with a roomful of uniformed Nazis to make this Fifth Reich “the Reich of Love.” Needless to say, he finds it a tough room.

Anchored by one of the great comedic performances of our age, OSS 117: Lost in Rio is another smart and funny satire of and homage to the spy movies of a bygone era. It celebrates the things from that time worthy of celebration, and eviscerates those worthy of evisceration. Fans of Eurospy cinema are often willing to overlook some of those movies’, ahem, outdated (to say the least) social views (or, more often, to find post-modern amusement in them), but those same fans are likely to find it refreshing to watch a film that calls them to task for those sexist and xenophobic points of view. From the broadest slapstick to the sharpest satirical barbs to the endless parade of film references (culminating in a hilarious jab at the final match-cut in North by Northwest), there’s something to enjoy for just about every spy fan and film buff in OSS 117: Lost in Rio.

OSS 117: Lost in Rio is currently playing exclusive one-week engagements in New York and Los Angeles; it expands into wider markets throughout the summer. For a full list of dates and cities, check the Music Box Films website.

*While the visual slapstick is obvious, though, some of the subtler verbal satire is unfortunately missed in the English language print thanks to white subtitles that sometimes don’t show up at all over lighter backgrounds.

Read my introduction to the character of OSS 117 here.
Read my review of OSS 117 se déchaîne here.
Read my review of Banco à Bangkok pour OSS 117 (aka Panic in Bangkok aka Shadow of Evil) here.
Read my review of Furia à Bahia pour OSS 117 (Fury in Brazil, aka OSS 117: Mission For a Killer) here.
Read my review of Atout coeur à Tokyo pour O.S.S. 117 (aka OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo) here.
Read my review of Pas de Roses pour OSS 117 (aka OSS 117: Murder For Sale) here.
Read my review OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d'espions (OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies) here.
Read my DVD review of OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus (OSS 117: Rio Doesn't Answer, aka OSS 117: Lost in Rio) here.


Christopher Mills said...

I am so eager to see this! Of course, living out in the woods, I'm going to have to wait for the DVD....

Delmo said...

You liked the hospital chase? You're a better man than I!

Tanner said...

The hospital chase certainly wasn't one of my favorite jokes in the film (like it was for The Hollywood Reporter's critic, who didn't like the movie as a whole nearly as much as I did), but, yeah, I thought the excellent, bombastic spy/chase music really sold it.

Christopher, keep your eye on Music Box's site. They're still planning to add some more venues, so MAYBE it will end up somewhere kind of near you. It's playing in Hartford later in the summer...