OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)

Rating: C+

Dir: Michel Hazanavicius
Star: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Aure Atika, Philippe Lefebvre

Back before Hazanavicius directed Dujardin in The Artist and everyone – not least the Academy Awards – took notice, they worked on this spy spoof, based on a long-running series of French novels (which predated James Bond by quite some way). Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (Dujardin) is sent to Cairo to investigate the disappearance of a fellow agent. It’s the mid-50s, and the city is not unlike Casablanca in the previous decade, with secret agents from host of nations, as well as other lurking groups with their own agendas.

Working out of his cover identity as the owner of a poultry unit, Agent 117 has to navigate the landscape of spv vs. spy, in a culture with which he is entirely unfamiliar. For instance, he takes a violent approach when woken by the call to morning prayers, and his assault on the muezzin nearly starts a revolution. He is charming, naive, not very smart and thoroughly cocky. But he is rather good as his job. It certainly does an impeccable job of capturing the style of those vintage Eurospy thrillers, from the crappy rear-projection to the fisticuffs, along with more than a hint of early 007, not least in 117’s treatment of women. Though similar in eta, this is a great deal more subtle than similar Western spoofs such as Austin Powers or Get Smart, and that’s a bit of a double-edged sword.

Its understated humour is part of the charm – you’d never guess the turning on and off of a lamp, accompanied by chicken noises, could be so funny. But it’s too good-natured, with an excess of reverence for its target, that means it rarely provokes much more than a smile. Dujardin is perfect for the role, and you can see why he was also a good choice as a silent movie star, coming over here like a French version of Clark Gable, suave yet politically incorrect, before the term even existed. The timing has pauses for laughs where none seem necessary, and I’m forced to wonder how much is lost in translation. What’s left is entertaining enough, yet no more than a slight trifle.