Monday 12 September 2011

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)


Mike Myers has always been something of an Anglophile. Both of his parents were British, born in Liverpool, who then moved to Canada, where Mike and his brothers were born. The British influence was always something Mike felt growing up, with a regular exposure to Monty Python and British spy thrillers from the 60s and 70s. In fact, although still a proud Canadian, when asked in interviews, he has been know to say that he considers himself British. Four years after his sequel to Wayne’s World, Mike was given a chance to fully explore his love of the British popular culture by writing and starring in a parody of the classic spy thrillers that he grew up watching with his family. Thus, the eternal battle between Austin Powers and Dr. Evil was released into the world.

In 1967, British hipster secret agent Austin Powers (Mike Myers) hunts his nemesis Dr. Evil (Mike Myers) down, only for villain to launch himself into space in a cryogenics tube. Powers is in turn frozen should Dr. Evil return. 30 years later, Austin is thawed and put back into action when Dr. Evil resurfaces in Nevada and steals a nuclear weapon to hold the world hostage. Along with his new sidekick Miss Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley), his ex-partner’s daughter, they head out to save the world.

In setting up the world of Austin Powers, Myers has drawn on several very rich sources for inspiration. Primarily a parody of the James Bond films of the 60s and 70s, there are glimpses of other points of influence. Austin’s sex-obsessed nature and love of a double entendre shows nods towards the Carry On films; his distinctive look comes from a melding of Michael Caine and the character of Jason King; the frequent jumps to brief musical interludes is drawn from A Hard Day’s Night and The Monkees television show; and there’s even a sequence in the credits that apes Blow-Up. Effectively, Myers has cast a wide net across all of the most outrageous aspects of London’s Swinging 60s image and dragged them all in for his own brand of comedy and wit.

The characters are absolutely superb, too. Austin Powers is a potent distillation of every gawdy, ridiculous and overblown excess of Swinging 60s era London. He is every inch a man of his time, right down the crushed velvet suit and love of Burt Bacharach. And he possesses all the capability of an international man of mystery. Hell, his middle name is actually Danger. What’s really great is that, for all of his obsession with sex and puns, Myers hasn’t forgotten the flipside to his hero. That Powers is so a man of his time, but now exists completely outside of it, there’s something pointing in the direction of pathos in him. It doesn’t last long, but it’s nice to see that Myers has treated Powers as more than just a perpetual joke.

And Dr. Evil is a creation of comedy gold. An absurd twist on major Bond villain Blofeld, Dr. Evil’s position of menace is regularly undercut by the most basic, and therefore hilarious, foibles. He can’t even sit in his chair without rolling away from the table, forcing him to awkwardly pull himself back to his position at the head of his table of minions. And that he’s so completely set in his ways that when his son points out his highly inefficient and illogical manner of working, he responds with exasperation, telling him “you just don’t get it, do you?” And while we’re on the subject, every scene with his son, Scott Evil, is superb. Dr. Evil wants his boy to take over the family business, but Scott, dealing with some major abandonment issues, just wants to be left alone. The scene where the two attend a group therapy session to try and build a relationship is brilliant for its simplicity and its absurdity, as well as the Carrie Fisher cameo. Mike Myers plays both Austin and Dr. Evil to an absolute tee, with nary a hint of losing character or cracking up.

The rest of film is littered with great characters, played with a great sense of the comedy pitch on show. A spot on Michael York embodies the brilliantly named Basil Exposition. Dr. Evil’s minions are equally well handled, like Mindy Sterling’s severe Frau Farbissina, or Robert Wagner’s utterly deadpan Number Two, or Seth Green as the angsty Scott. Elizabeth Hurley proves herself a good sport as Miss Kensington, although she is the weakest performance on show… but then she looks great in a leather catsuit, so we can’t judge too harshly. Even the lesser characters provide some genuine laughs, like the Irish assassin who wants to know why everyone always laughs when he says the police are “always after me lucky charms”; or Dr. Evil’s personal bodyguard, the shoe-throwing henchman Random Task. When I first saw this film, that name was strangely one of things that I laughed at most.

This is a genuinely clever movie, with evidence of a great sharpness to the whole. For example, Dr. Evil’s plans for world domination are initially deflated by changing world events, all of which he is completely unaware. As such, he simply resorts to the old stock plan of stealing nuclear weapons and holding the world hostage. It's small, but it is very effective. He can’t even get his ransom demands right, asking for $1 million or he'll destroy the world, for which he receives unanimous hysterical laughter from the UN delegates he’s threatening. There are also the really great scenes that offer the alternate perspectives on the genre, with glimpses into the family lives of some of Dr. Evil’s henchmen, the latter of which holds another of film’s great cameos, this time from Rob Lowe. It’s scenes like this that show an active engagement with the material and the attempt to present it in a new way. Ultimately, that’s what makes this film so successful as a parody. Parody films today think that it’s enough to simply point out the generic flaws of its target with cynical derision, because being a sarcastic hipster ass is funny, right? Austin Powers has enough respect for the source of its inspiration to absorb itself in that world, looking for comedy in areas that no one really thought of before and presenting it in a way that’s both sincere and hilarious.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery still has most, if not all of its jokes and quips firmly set in place. It’s a great mix of over-the-top buffoonery and genuinely clever send-ups of the spy genre staples, and it’s all done with a clear affection for its points of inspiration. It also holds two superb turns from Myers as Powers and Dr. Evil, and Elizabeth Hurley in a leather catsuit. Really, this is one of the great comedies of the 90s, and there is still so much to love about it.

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