Summer is here with new versions of familiar entertainments: A new Batman, a new Hell Boy, and now another spy spoof.
Every spy sendup owes something in spirit to Maxwell Smart. As the main character on TV’s “Get Smart”, Agent 86 set the gold standard for goofy storylines, ridiculous gadgets and non-stop laughs. 138 episodes enshrined the standing of creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. This success inspired a second television series and a pair of Maxwell Smart movies. Audiences forever link Don Adams with the character he played. People may not know where they first heard phrases like “Would you believe,” and “Missed it by THAT much.” In recent years major studios churned out variations like burgers at a
drive-thru: “Austin Powers,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Pink Panther” and
“Undercover Brother,” among others. A solid, lower key effort came in 2003: “Johnny English” with Rowan Atkinson. It failed to find a mass audience, but its human scale recalls the material that inspired it.
Now, a new “Get Smart” hits the screen with Steve Carell playing a different Maxwell Smart. In fact, this material is very different from the original — and that’s our Smackdown!: Does “Get Smart” climb atop the short pile of spy sendups… or get pushed back by “Johnny English?”
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Forty years after our first exposure to “Get Smart,” Max is now an intelligence analyst in Washington, DC with CONTROL but dying to be an agent. His chance comes after an attack on CONTROL headquarters compromises a number of agents. Max goes on the trail of renegade nuclear weapons, but this bumbler’s not going alone. He’s been assigned to work with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) and their chemistry is strained; she has field experience, he has insecurity and attitude. Those traits are on full display as their hunt for Siegfried (Terence Stamp) and the evil guys from KAOS moves the action to Chechnya, Russia and Los Angeles. More than once Max and 99 escape death by a whisker (a standoff with a large thug becomes a group hug) and they draw closer with each misadventure. Along the way we see the requisite gadgets that fizzle (the Cone of Silence, a miniature crossbow in a pocket knife) and quirky coworkers (Alan Arkin, Dwayne Johnson, Bill Murray). In a sputtering mix of comedy and action Max and Agent 99 wind up in L.A. where nuclear annihilation / a happy ending hang in the balance. You can guess how writers Tom Astle and Matt Ember resolve matters.
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The Defending Champ
Writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and William Davies ramp up a smaller crisis in “Johnny English.” Their hero is smug and clueless like TV’s Maxwell Smart, and clearly out of his depths when trouble strikes. Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) is elevated to secret agent from paper shuffler when his screwup eliminates the cream of Britain’s MI5 agents. A disgruntled French tycoon — Pascal Sauvage — steals England’s crown jewels in a plot to leverage an ancient but rejected family claim to the British throne. The chase takes English to France and back to England. More than once Johnny is snatched from oblivion by his assistant, Bough, and by fellow spy Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia). Will Johnny ever learn to handle his gadgets? Things don’t look good as Sauvage (John Malkovich) blackmails his way to the British throne (any wonder why this movie didn’t catch fire here?). Will Sauvage be crowned king? Will a poodle replace the English bulldog? Vous devez regarder le film!
Johnny and Max are similar characters: Both are defensive, prone to stumbling and maybe not as bright as they think. Smart, capable women save them more than once. Beyond that the stories quickly diverge.
“Johnny English” is a carefully produced film that did not waste its $35 million production budget. Every scene is well rehearsed, well lit and well edited. The film is not reliant on digital effects so the action scenes seem smaller, more human scale. It helps that Rowan Atkinson, Imbruglia and Ben Miller (Bough) effectively carry the action. John Malkovich manages to overcome a cheesy french accent. Atkinson is a physical comedian with the kind of rubbery face you just want to slap half the time. He is credibly smug and inept and works especially well with Miller. Atkinson is quite popular in England, but may not be strong enough to enchant audiences here. More likely, the humor isn’t strong enough. There are only so many laughs anyone can wring from Johnny prancing in a mirror or having his gun malfunction. If anything, the humor is infrequent and overly well-behaved.
By contrast, “Get Smart” has more to work with. It is well-produced but can’t decide whether it is a comedy or action movie. The result has an arbitrary, paint-by-numbers feel. Some of this may be the different spin Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway apply to their characters. He creates a different Maxwell Smart: More self-aware than Don Adams and increasingly attracted to Agent 99. This version nicely meshes with a tougher, more aggressive Agent 99 Anne Hathaway serves up. The film had more to spend on talent and it shows: Alan Arkin’s comic timing is a thing of beauty as Max’s boss; Dwayne Johnson (as turncoat agent 23) takes another positive step forward in a blossoming career.
“Get Smart” has a problem: Not enough laughs. The movie credits Mel Brooks and Buck Henry as special consultants. Maybe they should have written it. The source material from TV is well-known, well-regarded and 60 writers contributed to the series. Why not hire a few of them for this project? The producers had an $80 million production budget. So… would you believe there’s a definite winner amid all these contradictions? You bet.
“Johnny English” is underappreciated, enjoyable and holds up well, provided you like Rowan Atkinson. It’s also well-made, but more amusing than funny. A spoof needs to be more than occasionally clever.
That’s a lesson “Get Smart” should remember. This film needed script doctors to clear out the dead spots. This movie overly relied on high production value action, which is no substitute for laughs in a comedy.
Still, the comedy that did reach the screen showed enough to win on style points: “Get Smart.”