Before John McClane wisecracked his way through the Nakatomi Plaza and a host of German baddies in Die Hard (1988), the action hero said little, smiled even less, and kicked some ass in the process. Following Bruce Willis’ walk on broken glass, the action movie hero transformed into a one-line-spouting killing machine who mixed a little comedy with his bloodshed. But with the most recent incarnations of James Bond and Jason Bourne, the action hero has once again turned dark, brooding, and sullen.
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is director Hazanavicius’ attempt to riff on the notion that the hero in a spy film be witty, charming, and dashing. The story is simple: it’s 1955, and Agent OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin) goes to Egypt to investigate the murder of his former partner and inadvertently gets caught up in a plot involving smuggled arms, Islamic fundamentalists, and Nazis. While this parody aims to skewer such ’60s Bond fare as Dr. No and Goldfinger, it also argues that the only thing separating our revered action stars of the last two decades from total parody is the level of carnage surrounding their bad jokes.
Dujardin plays OSS 117 as a complete jackass. He is racist, chauvinistic, and completely in over his head, posing as a poultry tycoon to infiltrate the sinister syndicates moving about Cairo. Although the film shares a lot in common with the early Zucker films and, to some extent, the Austin Powers franchise, the jokes here are one track and often too obvious. OSS 117 remains completely straight-faced, despite the level of his idiocy. Of course, it’s impossible to take seriously any character who throws chickens at his foes (see Charlie Sheen in Hot Shots! Part Deux), but unlike Leslie Nielsen in the Naked Gun series, OSS 117 is just not likable enough to forgive his ignorant gaffes.
It is obvious the filmmakers are trying to tackle issues such as cultural imperialism, ethnocentrism, arrogance, and sexism. In one of the funnier bits, OSS 117 gives an Egyptian co-worker a photo of the French president as a gift, only to be dumbfounded as to why the man refuses to gracefully accept it. Of course, OSS 117 sees the leader of his country as the supreme liberator and cannot understand the man’s reluctance to “buy-in[to]”a country and a continent that has more or less exploited Egyptian labor to build and profit from the Suez Canal.
But this is where the jokes wear thin. There are only so many times one can watch OSS 117 bumble into trouble with the cultural sensitivity aplomb of George W. Bush. He scoffs at the number of Muslims in the world as a myth, compliments an Egyptian on the Suez, and attacks a muezzin whose call to prayer interrupts our hero’s beauty sleep. The message is clear soon after the movie begins, but Hazanavicius belabors his point until the life is sucked from the jokes.
It is admirable that OSS 117 seeks to poke at and show us how ridiculous our movie heroes can be. Just watch the sex scene between Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone in The Specialist. We like our heroes to be virile, airbrushed, and sensitive in the sack. As OSS 117 begins to make love to Princess Al Tarouk (Aure Atika), all the familiar tropes are there: the passionate kissing ensues, the camera pulls away slowly and away from the bed. Only when the camera briefly returns do we glimpse the desperate, vigorous humping of real people. Funny, yes. But a little subtlety could go a long way in this film.
Unfortunately, the best gags are overshadowed by the lame ones (nothing beats a Nazi lamenting the fact that they are always portrayed as bad guys in films). If OSS: 117 had just a little more debonair finesse, it could have soared. But instead it’s just like its protagonist: too cocksure for its own good and not nearly as clever as the filmmakers hope it to be.