OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES (Le Caire nid d’espions)

(director/writer: Michel Hazanavicius; screenwriters: Jean-François Halin/from the book by Jean Bruce; cinematographer: Guillaume Schiffman; editor: Reynald Bertrand; music: Ludovic Bource/Kamel Ech-Cheik; cast: Jean Dujardin (Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, aka OSS 117), Bérénice Béjo (Larmina), Aure Atika (Princess Al Tarouk), Philippe Lefèbvre (Jack Jefferson), Constantin Alexandrov (Setine), Saïd Amadis (Egyptian spokesman), Youssef Hamid (L’imam), Arsène Mosca (Loktar), Abdallah Moundy (Slimane), Eric Prat (Plantieux), Richard Sammel (Moeller); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Eric Altmeyer/Nicolas Altmeyer; Music Box Films; 2006-France-in French with English subtitles)

“A lowbrow spy spoof that can only go so far with such a silly plot.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A lowbrow spy spoof that can only go so far with such a silly plot. It makes a big effort to be politically incorrect and an even bigger effort to clean up the mess it made. Before Ian Fleming’s James Bond there was Gallic spy Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, created from the spy novels by Jean Bruce. Cowriter (with Jean-François Halin) and director Michel Hazanavicius (“Mes amis”) means it to be a deadpan spoof of old spy movies (from the 1940s and 1950s) and though his spy touches bases with Austin Powers, this film avoids that simpleminded gross-out slapstick shtick to shoot for bigger game such as throwing darts at the Bond myth and his chauvinism, taking the President René Coty’s French government to task for its 1950’s colonialism and giving the westerner the business for the way they look down their noses on cultures and religions from Middle-East Arab countries.

It was shot in Casablanca and Morocco.

In 1955 hotshot French operative for the Secret Service, OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin), is sent to Egypt with a mission to find out who murdered his OSS 283 colleague and best friend Jack Jefferson (Philippe Lefèbvre) and why. OSS 117 is to take over OSS 283’s mission in Cairo, where he covers his spy activities by being a chicken farmer. He’s also given a long laundry list of other aims, such as the nearly impossible one to “Make the Middle East safe” since Egypt has become unstable because of the following: The Russians and the Americans are in a constant Cold War conflict; England’s control of the Suez Canal irks the Egyptians; a Russian freighter carrying arms is missing; King Farouk’s sexy niece (Aure Atika) is part of a group looking to take back the country from Nasser; and Islamic religious extremists are calling Westerners infidels and to be removed from the country.

The running gag is that whenever the arrogant and preening OSS 117 opens his mouth he puts his foot in it with dumb comments about Islam or Egypt or women. The spy’s Egyptian secretary Larmina (Bérénice Bejo) feels obliged to correct him, but he’s only interested in her hot bod and is insensitive to her feelings. Another goofy running gag has OSS 117 beating up anyone who gets the wrong password code, which is “How is your veal stew?” and not goulash as one poor spy found out (I bet Jerry Lewis could hop on that lame gag line!).

Hazanavicius’ slick style of film-making mimics old movie conventions through its costuming, sets, and low tech action scenes. It throws in a bunch of visual gags that range from the live-chicken-throwing fight to the French spy causing a national incident by calling out a muezzin whose amplified morning call to pray wakes him up from his slumber. There’s plenty of double entendres, awful puns, and stale Nazi jokes to keep your mind off how far off the reservation the film goes.

It was a big commercial hit in France (they also think Jerry Lewis is funny), but I doubt if America will take to its very Gallic slant on things in the same positive way. The old American “Get Smart” TV series covered just about the same bases and though no great comedy still had more wit than this noisy farce.

OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d'espions (2006)

REVIEWED ON 5/17/2009 GRADE: C+   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/