Friday, December 6, 2019

Austin Powers Collection: Shagadelic Edition [Loaded with Extra Mojo]

In the beginning, there was Alfred Hitchcock. Huh? It was Hitchcock in the 1930s and 40s who helped popularize the mystery-suspense espionage picture with that touch of tongue-in-cheek humor for which Hitchcock was famous. Remember films like "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The 39 Steps," "Secret Agent," "Sabotage," "Saboteur," and "Notorious"? Then in 1953 former British Intelligence officer Ian Fleming published the first of his many James Bond novels, "Casino Royale." In 1959 it was back to Hitchcock, who directed "North By Northwest" with Cary Grant. What does that have to do with anything? When producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman decided to make their initial big-screen Bond film, "Dr. No," they used "North By Northwest" as their model. They, too, wanted a stylish, sophisticated spy flick with subtle humor, and they went so far as to approach Grant to play Bond. (Grant wanted too much money and wouldn't do a series.) With the success of "Dr. No" and its successors came the Bond imitators and spoofs: "Danger Man" ("Secret Agent"), "The Prisoner," "I Spy," "Get Smart," "Our Man Flint," "In Like Flint," "Cleopatra Jones," "Deadlier Than the Male" (Bulldog Drummond), "Matt Helm," "Top Secret," just about anything ever written by John le Carre ("The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" "Smiley's People"), Tom Clancy (Jack Ryan), etc.

Wading into this morass of spy yarns came comic actor Mike Myers, who in 1997 mined the field with his own spy parody "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," a film that not only poked fun at spy flicks but the whole 1960s' culture of swinging sex, extravagant clothing, garish colors, and quickly changing social attitudes. As the writer and star of "Austin Powers," Myers had a wealth of material to work with, and the movie did well enough that he made two sequels, "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" (1999) and "Austin Powers in Goldmember" (2002). It might have been better for him to quit while he was ahead, but for dedicated "Austin Powers" fans, they couldn't get enough.

"International Man of Mystery"
So, things started off with a bang in "International Man of Mystery." In 1967 London, Austin Powers is a superspy whose cover is that of a famous fashion photographer. Women young and old chase him around as though he were one of the Beatles. Myers plays him as a fellow with terrible teeth, a ridiculously hairy chest, and outlandishly flashy clothes, whose love of self supercedes all other affections. After a successful run on TV, Myers had only done two movies before this one, "Wayne's World" and "So I Married an Axe Murderer," and he was taking a chance, as was the studio, with so outrageous a character.

To counteract Powers' glaring appearance and behavior, Myers also plays the film's villain, Dr. Evil, a spoof of Bond's Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Dr. Evil is relatively sedate and conservative compared to Powers, and Evil's only ambition is to hold the world at ransom or blow it up. When Evil thinks his enemies are catching on to him, he cryogenically freezes himself for thirty years, with Powers doing likewise to be ready for him when he thaws out. Skip forward to 1997 when Powers continues chasing Evil in a totally new world, "a time when free love no longer reigned, and greed and corruption ruled again."

Poor Austin: Imagine his disappointment that promiscuous sex and uncontrolled drug use weren't what they used to be. Dr. Evil is up to his usual mischief, trying to extort one million dollars (uh, a million isn't what it used to be), a hundred billion dollars from the world's leaders.

Every so often in the film, we see Powers in flashback interludes that copy the pattern of the old "Laugh-In" TV show, and the film does its best to revive old Bond heavies: Robert Wagner plays Number Two, Evil's second-in-command; Seth Green is Scott Evil, the doctor's test-tube son; Will Ferrell has a small part as Mustafa, a top assassin; Fabriana Udenio is Alotta Fagina, a Pussy Galore knockoff; Mindy Sterling is Frau Farbissina, a Rosa Kleb or Irma Bunt caricature; Joe Sun is Random Task, an Oddjob clone, etc.

On Austin's side are Mimi Rogers as his 1967 partner, Mrs. Kensington, an Emma Peel type; Elizabeth Hurley as Mrs. Kensington's daughter, Vanessa, a modern, independent woman who is Austin's 1997 partner; and Michael York as Basil Enterprise, head of the British Secret Service.

Besides the listed stars, the movie also uses a number of familiar faces in uncredited roles. Look for Tom Arnold, Lois Chiles, Carrie Fisher, Rob Lowe, and Christian Slater, among others.

Directed by Jay Roach ("Meet the Parents," "Meet the Fockers"), "International Man of Mystery" contains its fair share of bathroom humor, much of it childish, a lot of it gross, and some of it hilarious. There is a particularly funny pair of scenes in which a totally naked Myers and later a totally naked Hurley wander around the set with their private parts artfully and ingeniously obscured.

"And I can't believe Liberace was gay... I didn't see that coming." --Austin Powers

"The Spy Who Shagged Me"
The second movie, "The Spy Who Shagged Me" (taken from the Bond title "The Spy Who Loved Me"), takes up where the first film ended. However, for convenience sake, it needs to get rid of a key character, whom it dumps rather unceremoniously. Then it goes on to parody "Moonraker," but little else. Indeed, "The Spy Who Shagged Me" doesn't so much try to send up other spy films as it tries to one-up its own predecessor in this second go-round.

Myers, who wrote and stars again, seems more self-consciously displaying Austin's ego and his own, and the movie plays one good joke from the first movie into the ground. Not content with simply doing the roles of Austin Powers and Dr. Evil, this time he also portrays a disgruntled Scottish Guard with an eating disorder, Fat Bastard, who does Dr. Evil's dirty work. Fat Bastard is obscenely overweight and is so nasty and so repulsive, he eats babies. For the most part his character is disgusting for the sole sake of being disgusting. But you won't soon forget him, which I suppose is the point.

The excuse for a plot in this one is that Austin has lost his mojo, his sex drive. It seems that Dr. Evil has a time machine and returned to a date in the late 1960s after the British Secret Service had frozen Austin's body; he has Fat Bastard drain the juices from Austin's frigid body, and Austin has to use a time machine to get it back. Myers is really stretching in this one.

Most of the same cast are back (including Will Ferrell, who doesn't die as amusingly in this outing), with a couple of notable additions. Heather Graham plays Felicity Shagwell, a CIA operative with a bigger libido than Austin's, if that's possible, and worse acting talent. Rob Lowe plays Dr. Evil's Number Two man in the past, a younger Robert Wagner. And best of all, Verne Troyer steals the show as a miniature version of Dr. Evil named Mini-Me.

What was humorous in the first movie now begins to feel tired, stale, and old hat. The film seems more gimmicky and self-indulgent, with much of the humor forced and hollow. The gross jokes are grosser than ever, although at least one of them, a tent scene, did make me laugh out loud once again.

Also, look for more famous cameos: Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, Tim Robbins, Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson, Jerry Springer, Fred Willard, and more.

"Austin Powers in Goldmember"
Mike Myers must have laughed all the way to the bank. Too bad he was one of the few people laughing. As the "Austin Powers" films became more imitative of themselves and consequently less comical, they made more money, with the third and final film in the series, "Austin Powers in Goldmember," raking in the most box-office cash of the three. Unfortunately, things went from mediocre to worse in this entry. If only Myers had quit when he was ahead...he would not have become as wealthy.

The title "Goldmember" is obviously a take-off on "Goldfinger," although that's almost as far as it goes. As he did with the other "Austin Powers" films, Myers fills "Goldmember" with an abundance of sexual innuendo, maybe the most of the three movies, yet in order to get a PG-13 rating, there is no actual sex or profanity or nudity involved. Which makes things even smuttier for the constant, unfulfilled references. Myers knows that the human imagination can be more powerful than mere images on the screen, and he takes full advantage to create a cruder, grosser film than ever.

"Goldmember" begins with a cute opening homage to the previous "Austin Powers" films, using famous actors, singers, directors, and musicians in major roles. However, after that, it's downhill; the film-within-a-film means little and goes nowhere. The movie's plot, which is almost indecipherable and includes a ton of repeat business, concerns Dr. Evil kidnapping Austin's father, necessitating Austin's using the time machine to return to 1975 to rescue him. Or something.

It's harder than ever to tell who has the bigger ego in the story, Austin Powers or Mike Myers. This time out, Myers--who co-wrote, co-produced, and stars--plays four characters: Powers, Dr. Evil, Fat Bastard, and Goldmember. As before, Verne Troyer as Mini-Me has the best gags, although Michael Caine as Austin's randy, superspy dad does his best to inject a little life into the proceedings.

Otherwise, it's more of the same. The old characters are back, with a few new faces: Beyonce Knowles is Foxxy Cleopatra (remember "Cleopatra Jones"?), one of Austin's old flames and his new agent partner; and Fred Savage is Number Three, a mole with a mole. Besides them, there is a whole roster of cameos from Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Steven Spielberg, Quincy Jones, Britney Spears, Nathan Lane, the Osbournes, John Travolta, Burt Bacharach, Rob Lowe, Mandy Moore, and others. They are mostly eye candy.

For me, the "Austin Powers" series started out reasonably well and then began quickly to run out of ideas, the three movies going downhill from a recommendable 6/10 to an average 5/10 to a below-average 4/10. Still, the new Blu-ray transfers look good and make the movies' few genuine laughs more worthwhile than ever.

When I think of comedies that stand the test of time, yet are still hilarious years later and in turn have had an impact on culture, the "Austin Powers" films always end up at the top of my list. They are certainly the kind of movies that are meant to be stupid, and that's what makes them tremendously funny. The impact on culture alone has given these enjoyable films cult status, yet they have become as much mainstream as they have aged. Ever since the Austin Powers craze, beginning in the late 90's, there has been a plethora of cultural effects. Many people quote parts of the movies, such as Austin's "Yeah, baby" or "Shall we shag now or later, baby?" Then there's Dr. Evil's famous pinky finger to the mouth gesture anytime a copious sum of money is mentioned. I've literally seen evening news anchors do this gesture, including Katie Couric on the "Today Show" a few years ago. Obviously a fan of the films, Couric managed even to make a cameo appearance as a prison guard in "Austin Powers: Goldmember."