Secret agent “homme”

Pub date May 11, 2010

NEW-OLD MOVIE The Cold War heated up a public appetite for spy adventures well before James Bond became a pop phenomenon. In fact, Ian Fleming hadn’t yet created 007 in 1949, when Jean Bruce commenced writing novels about Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, a.k.a. Agent OSS 117 — eventually more than 90 of them. When Bruce died (crashing his Jaguar — what a man!) in 1963, just as the screen Bond was taking off, his widow wrote another 143. Then her children wrote two dozen more, as recently as 1992.

Needless to say, this French superspy was ready-made to join the ranks of umpteen 007 wannabes, appearing in somewhere between six and 11 films (it’s unclear whether all involved de La Bath, or were just Bruce-based) through 1970, played by at least four actors. The series remained well-known enough to get a new life in 2006 when director Michel Hazanavicius and top French comedy star Jean Dujardin sought to spoof 1960s espionage flicks a la Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997).

That was a big hit, so now we’ve got a sequel. OSS 117: Lost in Rio isn’t as fresh or funny as the preceding Cairo, Nest of Spies. But it’s still a whole lot fresher and funnier than Austin Powers Nos. two (1999) and three (2002). Dujardin’s de La Bath is the very model of jet-set masculinity, twisting the night away at a ski chalet with umpteen soon-to-be-machine gunned “Oriental” lovelies in the opening sequence, flashing a pearly, superconfident smirk at the neverending stream of multinational babes elsewhere, wowing them poolside with his top-of-the-mid-1960s-line male physique (nice, but don’t expect visible abs). Of course such pleasure pursuits take place strictly between car chases, shootouts, and karate fights.

Posing (badly) as a reporter to root out Hitlerites hiding in Brazil, our lone-gun hero is distressed to discover he has help from Israeli Mossad agents, one a mere chick. “Hunt down a Nazi with Jews?” he exclaims, complaining the target villain “will recognize them … their noses, obviously.” Beyond its pitch-perfect recreation of swinging ’60s cinema clichés (Naugahyde-lounge muzak, slightly feverish Technicolor, etc.), these films’ main joke is how cluelessly, casually racist, sexist, and xenophobic de La Bath is. The joke is on him, but his charm is remaining blissfully unaware.

Agreeably silly, Lost in Rio doesn’t go for Hollywood-style slapstick and grossout yuks. Instead, its biggest laughs are usually droll throwaways, as when 117 explains a shocking sudden costume change with the unlikely declaration “I sew,” or during an LSD-dosed hippie orgy proves quite willing to go with the flow — even when that involves another guy’s groovy finger breaching security up the pride of French intelligence’s derriere.

OSS 117: LOST IN RIO opens Fri/14 in Bay Area theaters.