It’s Austin Powers by way of our Gallic friends…
Before they went all critically-lauded and awards-worthy with The Artist, Oscar winners Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Durjadin were best known for spoofs of 60’s spy cheese. The first, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, was a delightful little comedy, a perfect send-up of everything from James Bond to Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die! Hazanavicius lovingly recreates every detail of those movies, perfectly capturing the look and feel of the 1960’s - so much so that it could easily pass for a film from the period itself. A sequel perhaps was not necessary, but even if only capturing half the delight of the first film, it could still prove to be a worthy endeavor. And while it’s not as endearing as its predecessor, OSS 117: Lost in Rio shows that there is still much fun to be had in this world.
OSS 117 (real name Hubert Bonniseur de La Bath) was created by author Jean Bruce as a sort of French counterpoint to James Bond, appearing in over 100 novels and eight films. Originally an American of French descent, here the character is reimagined as a bumbling French patriot in service to the SDECE - the best secret agent in all of France: charming, bigoted, vaguely racist and a bit of a buffoon. In Lost in Rio, he’s sent to Rio de Janeiro to deliver a blackmail payment to an ex-Nazi for a microfilm containing a list of French Nazi conspirators from WWII. While in Rio, Hubert encounters everything from Red Chinese, hippies, Nazis, crocodiles *, a pair of luchadores and Mossad agents.
As the title character, Jean Dujardin is kind of magnificent. He could have easily starred in one of the spy movies spoofed here, with is natural charm and classic Hollywood looks. But Dujardin shows great aptitude for comedy of all types, just as adept at delivering the clever, deadpan wordplay of the script as he is at physical slapstick. Much of the film’s humor comes from Hubert’s political incorrectness, so it’s entirely fitting that he’s paired with a female Mossad agent, Dolores Koulechov (Louise Monot). Once he figures out that she is in fact a secret agent and not a secretary, the two work together to bring down ex-Naxi Professor Von Zimmel. Dolores is a little too one note as a character, but we need a straight (wo)man to give Hubert someone to bounce off of, which Monot provides acceptably. Rounding out the cast is Alex Lutz as Von Zimmel’s estranged son Heinrich, who’s renounced his father and his Nazi ways to become a hippy. Dujardin, Monot and Lutz make for quite the team, and watching the three of them act together is a delight.
“Delightful” is a word that comes up a lot here, as there’s really no other way to describe Hazanavicius’ film. The director captures the feel of 60’s spy movies perfectly, even limiting his camera only to the types of moves and shots capable from that time period (no Steadycam, no elaborate crane shots, etc.). For Lost in Rio, Hazanavicius also takes a cue from The Thomas Crown Affair and plays around with split-screen montages - which aren‘t always successful, but the director has some fun with a few (especially Monot‘s hypnotizing introductory scene). What shines through more than anything, though - and what keeps the film from devolving into Austin Powers territory - is Hazanavicius’ clear love of classic Hollywood films. He evokes the best of Hitchcock **, Sturges and Curtiz with certain shots, and while his love for those movies is never in doubt, he’s also not afraid to poke a little fun at them, either.
Watching the movie is akin to being put under a spell by Hazanavicius and his crew, who made the movie for no other reason than being mad-drunk in love with pure cinema.
* Which our hero learns aren't so easy to cook in the film's funniest scene.
** All the spy films owe a great debt to North by Northwest - the early James Bond movies being especially influenced by Hitchcock’s 1959 movie.