- Rated PG
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Jason Newman
ith the success of “The Blues Brothers” and “Trading Places,” John Landis had the "bumbling duo in bizarre situations" niche already locked up before directing this 1985 spoof marrying the Cold War with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's road movies. Given the film's less-than-stellar critical and initial commercial response, maybe the public was worn out by the time Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd appeared as two low-level government employees hired as decoys for a secret mission by the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Yet the movie has since become a cult classic; one that those of a certain age and gender have committed to near memory and can spout lines and scenes on command like a new Army recruit. Emmett Fitz-Hume (Chase, in a role originally meant for Joe Piscopo) is a sarcastic, legacy diplomat who excels at obfuscation and concealment, avoiding thorny questions from reporters by speaking as if the microphone was broken. Austin Millbarge (Akyroyd) is a Pentagon code breaker confined to an obscure basement office far removed from actual action or other people. When the two men are caught cheating on the Foreign Service Exam, they're brought in for disciplinary action. "So what are we gonna get?," asks Akyroyd. "Dismissal? Suspension? Censure? Departmental Prosecution?" The unlikely response: promotion.
Unbeknownst to the pair, Fitz-Hume and Millbarge are the perfect decoys to distract Russian enemies from the U.S.'s real agents already deep inside Soviet borders. What follows is a series of outlandish adventures that involve numerous near-death experiences, double-crosses and shady characters, all delivered with smug one-liners and an inadvertent insouciance at nearly being shot to death on several occasions. Hey, no one's watching for the realism.
Much has been written of the film's dated plot; the idea that the film loses something because relations with Russia have eased since the 1980s. But I think the camaraderie between Chase and Aykroyd, both former "Saturday Night Live" stars, transcends the story, which merely serves as a vehicle and vessel for the pair's timeless antics (The "Doctor? Doctor." scene has been scientifically proven to always induce hysterics).
What makes “Spies Like Us” a classic film is Landis's ability to play it straight and let his leads handle the comedy. In contrast to “National Lampoon's Animal House,” which had "zany" imbued in every scene, Landis treats the material like a legitimate spy/action film, allowing the humor to penetrate that much further against the stark backdrops of freedom fighters, U.N. doctors and nuclear threat.
As an added bonus for film geeks, nowhere is Landis's trademark of putting fellow filmmakers in bit roles more evident than here. Look closely and you'll see Joel Coen and Sam Raimi as the security guards who wave in Bruce Davison and William Prince, Frank Oz as the proctor who catches the duo cheating, Terry Gilliam as Dr. Imhaus ("Doctor, isn't that a bit high for the appendix?"), Martin Brest as a Security Guard at the drive-in, and Ray Harryhausen as Dr. Marston. Movie nerds everywhere rejoice.
But that's just the cherry. “Spies Like Us” may not be whispered in the same hushed, reverent tones as “Trading Places”or “National Lampoon's Animal House,” but it still stands as that rainy Sunday afternoon movie you will never turn off.