Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)

HE'S BACK, HE'S EVEN BIGGER AND HE'S UP FOR IT!

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was a pretty big deal. Although its theatrical take is generally regarded as modest (apparently making $68 million from a $16 million budget is modest), it found even greater success on the rental market, and its cultural impact was massive. For those of you who weren’t there for it, after the film came out you couldn’t turn a corner without someone firing off one of the dozens of catchphrases at you. It was huge. Given that this was the case, a sequel was guaranteed to arrive, giving the world another crack at the abundantly toothy spy. Two years after the first, that sequel arrived – Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Austin Powers (Mike Myers) returns to action after he discovers his wife Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley) is a fem-bot, created by Dr. Evil (Mike Myers) to assassinate him. When Powers survives, Dr. Evil travels back in time to 1969 and he steals Austin’s Mojo. Travelling back to 1969, Austin teams up with CIA agent Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham) to recover Austin’s mojo and stop Dr. Evil from wiping out Washington DC with a moon-based laser gun.

By now, we’re all aware of the rules regarding sequel escalation, where the follow-up to a successful film has to be bigger, give more, be more outrageous. Hell, just look at the tagline up there. That is most definitely the case with The Spy Who Shagged Me, in which even the title is allowed to be more risqué. The title itself caused something of a stir in the build up to the film’s release. Adverts and posters were somewhat censored, hoping to avoid offence at the carnal suggestion. It was also changed in various countries, some looking to downplay or alter the meaning (Finland’s version translated as The Spy Who Bumped Me), whilst some seemed to drop the pretence altogether (Norway’s version translated as The Spy Who Ejaculated on Me). Regardless, it’s a pretty obvious indication that the film was given a freer hand to try and recapture the old magic.

The inspiration for the film still comes from the various Bond movie's tropes and clichés, all geared towards making the film bigger and wackier. Dr. Evil now has a base inside a volcano, as well as a secret base on the Moon. He now also has a huge destructive laser cannon, with which he plans to hold the world to ransom once more. As with the first film, there are other sources for comedy here. For example, a highly suggestive game of chess parodies the one from the original 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair. Also, a number of jokes refer directly to Star Wars (Death Star, Dr. Evil’s claim that he is Austin’s father, some design elements of the Moon base). All of these shows a distinct eye not just for the 60s era in which the film is predominantly set, but also for the year of the film’s release. The Thomas Crown Affair was remade and released in 1999, being released two months after The Spy Who Shagged Me. Also, the much-anticipated Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace got its release in 1999, leading to many publicity jokes. One of the trailers announced, “If you only see one movie this summer, see Star Wars. But if you see two movies, see Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.” Myers clearly still shows some talent for parody.

The actual film itself does, if we’re honest, suffer a little bit from this newfound licence to be bigger. The introduction of time travel, which will allow Austin to travel back to the 60s, is always a thorny thing to introduce, simply because it can automatically destroy the logic of the film. Also, it can feel a bit cynical to use it at times (“What do we do to make this new film better?…… uh, time travel?...... Okay.”). Myers and co. are obviously aware of this, with Austin trying to follow the potential paradoxes offered before Basil Exposition tells him not to think about it, and then informs the audience to do the same. Yes, they know that pretty much none of what we’re about to see makes any sense, but they want you to just enjoy the ride. I’m often very wary of films that do this, but if it’s a fun ride, then I can get over it.

New things to come from this film are the introduction of three new characters. Taking the place of Miss Kensington as Austin’s partner is Felicity Shagwell, played by Heather Graham. Given the respect Austin developed for monogamy in the first film, as well as him being Mojo-jacked, it's a good reversal of relationship as Felicity is everything that Vanessa wasn’t. She’s as highly-sexed as Austin, and always ready for a proverbial tumble. In fact, she introduces herself as Felicity Shagwell, “Shagwell by name, shag very well by reputation.” Another new face is Dr. Evil’s clone, Mini Me, played by Verne Troyer. Mini Me is another fine comic creation from Myers, with the two playing of each other very well, and serves to appropriately further disrupt the relationship between Dr. Evil and his son Scott, which continues to be strained (a great scene at the beginning has both of them appear on an episode of Jerry Springer, which inevitably ends in a massive fight). The third is another character that Myers plays himself, the enormous and appropriately named Fat Bastard, a disgruntled Scots Guard who works for Dr. Evil. As much as Myers is an anglophile, he is also rather obsessed with Scotland. As such, Scottish characters have a way of surfacing fairly regularly in his work (So I Married an Ax Murder, Shreck). Fat Bastard is a grotesque individual, weighing a metric tonne and claims to eat babies, hence some carnivorous intentions towards Mini Me.

Everyone in the cast does well, with Myers giving just as much to his roles here as he did the first one. Heather Graham is a bit more convincing than Liz Hurley was in her role, but there are still moments that you see her drop character. There is a great turn from Rob Lowe, who returns here in a more substantial part, as Number Two circa 1969. Effectively playing a young Robert Wagner, he gets everything right, from the walk to the precise timbre of Wagner’s voice, though he still makes it his own.

The film itself is still a lot of fun, and the jokes still fly with a great regularity. The two sequences where people describe Dr. Evil’s rocket ship (“What is that? It looks just like an enormous... Wang! Pay attention.... Sorry, I was distracted by that giant flying... Willie!... Yeah?... What’s that?... Well, that looks like a huge... Johnson!... Yes, sir?”) is very funny, even though you feel like it shouldn’t. The moment with Dr. Evil losing control of his chair is great, as is his Mojo-fuelled seduction of Frau Farbissina.

However, there is a little less of the wit that shone through the original. There isn’t really anything like the scenes exploring the life of an evil henchman. Also, many of the jokes here are repeats of the originals, with just a slight tweak to make them work. It’s rather splitting hairs to come down against them, but it’s still indicative of a less intelligent take on the genre. Other jokes rely on more crude humour, such as the tent scene (although that’s still pretty funny.) or the whole character of Fat Bastard. The Spy Who Shagged Me seems to have lowered its standards a bit in order to capitalise on having a wider audience than the first film. As it is, it worked. This film made more money in the first weekend than its predecessor did in total, seeing it through to a final take that was over four times that of the last one. That’s some pretty good business.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me is about as funny as the original, although it does lack much of the cleverness that showed up in the first film, and the story isn’t as tight as it should be (something most time travel films must deal with). Nevertheless, there is still a lot of fun to be had, with more parodic swings at the spy genre, new absurd comic creations and a freer sense of whimsy about it. I’d rather it held to the shrewdness of the first, but it’s still some fine entertainment.

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