Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (Retro Review)
A Surprisingly Effective Spoof of Spy Movies and Swinging ’60s Cliches.
This is a surprisingly effective spy spoof from writer-star Michael Myers—surprising because his previous attempt at genre parody, the Hitchcock takeoff SO I MARRIED AN AX MURDERER, betrayed a number of miscalculations that are repeated here: Myers again casts himself as a goofy character who nevertheless ultimately wins the beautiful leading lady (in this case Elizabeth Hurley), who proves herself good enough to e cast n a real Bond film, not just an ersatz one). As with AX MURDERER, a more believable leading man with a flair for light comedy, rather than an outright comedian, might have done a better job; come to think of it, Roger Moore was a better Bond parody than this! At least Myers does a good job of sending up his character as an anachronistic swinger whose level of “cool” falls well below his own self-image (a fact acknowledged in the second sequel, AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER, wherein Michael Caine [who had played agent Harry Palmer in the 1960s] shows up as Austin’s father, establishing a striking contrast between a legitimately smooth operator and a mere poseur).
Unfortunately, the film gets off to a bit of a weak start, generating fewer laughs than the tongue-in-cheek efforts (like THE AVENGERS) that it attempts to spoof. Part of the problem lies in the premise: Austin is presented as a groovy character who is hopelessly lost when he is thawed out of a cryogenic freeze in the 1990s, but he is such a geek that it’s impossible to think of him as anything but a loser in any era. Fortunately, the jokes at his expense do grow funny over time; and even though the underlying assumption that he is irresistible to women remains a ludicrous conceit on the part of the star, the film does manage to incorporate, to good effect, the mechanics of everything spy flick from GOLDFINGER through GOLDFOOT, milking the clichés for laughs by twisting them just enough off center to reveal the humor.
Music and technical departments do a good job of capturing the ‘60s era, even though most of the film is not set in that period. Rather, they evoke some of the style that Powers brings with him, which intrudes upon the film in amusing ways—as when inserts of Austin performing with a psychedelic ‘60s-type band are used as a gaudy transitional device between scenes. Along the way, Michael York and Robert Wagner turn up in effective supporting roles. Tom Arnold is also on hand, but you need to enjoy crude bathroom humor to enjoy his scene. Even better is Mimi Rogers as a good Emma Peel surrogate during the ‘60s prologue. It’s a shame she doesn’t get more screen time.
The highlight of hilarity, however, is Myers’ turn as Powers’ nemesis, Dr. Evil. Here, the actor truly shines, giving a brilliant send-up of supervillains (in particular, Bond’s perennial adversary, Ernst Stavros Blofeld). With absurdly affected mannerisms, it is side-splittingly funny to see the revived Evil learn that his criminal empire’s legitimate business fronts now outgross his evil enterprises, or to watch him attempt to forge a familial bond with his estranged, artificially conceived son—which includes a trip to a group therapy (presided over by Carrie Fisher in an amusing cameo), where the bad doctor does something no-onscreen Bond villain ever does: explain his back story. Seeing the alienated uber-villain pour his soul out to a room full of strangers is priceless. Scenes like this make the first AUSTIN POWERS film mandatory viewing for spy movie fans, in spite of its occasional missteps.
AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (1997). Director: Jay Roach. Writer: Mike Myers. Cast: Mike Myers, Elizabeth Hurley, Michael York, Mimi Rogers, Robert Wagner, Seth Green
Copyright 1997 Steve Biodrowski. Originally published in Cinefantastique.