I don't think I'm making any kind of an Earth-shattering revelation when I say that I was a comedy junkie for most of the '80s. I didn't distinguish between good comedy or bad comedy, high or low humor; if it meant to be funny, I would watch it. This is why, in addition to the collective works of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, I've also seen movies like Morgan Stewart's Coming Home multiple times and Johnny Dangerously was considered must-see viewing in the Clark household whenever it came on television, which was often. ("You shouldn't hang me on a hook, Johnny. My father hung me on a hook once. Once!") The holy grail for me, though (until I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that is), was just about any film that starred an alumnus of Saturday Night Live -- despite the fact that I was too young to stay up and actually watch Saturday Night Live at the time. The ones that I gravitated to the most were Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, the breakout stars of the original cast who had gone on to great success (individually or in various pairings) in films like Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, Stripes, National Lampoon's Vacation, Trading Places and Ghostbusters. Sure, not all the movies they made were gems (Modern Problems, anyone? If not, would you prefer a house call from Doctor Detroit?), but I watched them regardless. As long as they made me laugh once or twice, I wasn't too particular.
If I respected any one of them more than the other four, it was definitely Dan Aykroyd, largely because he had a hand in writing many of the films he was in, which I felt gave him a leg up over the likes of Chevy Chase, who seemed to be content to do whatever happened to come his way. (This is how a misfire like Under the Rainbow happens.) When the two of them teamed up for 1985's Spies Like Us (which Aykroyd conceived with the original intention of co-starring with Belushi), I was delighted to finally see how they would play off each other. (I didn't get to see any of their work together on Saturday Night Live until years later, so as far as my 12-year-old mind was concerned, Spies Like Us was the first meeting of their comedic minds.) And while I had yet to become a full-blown auteurist, I was aware that the director, John Landis, had also been the guiding force behind Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places and the first segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (the prologue for which had featured Aykroyd). In short, I was ready-made to love Spies Like Us and love it I did. I even bought the 45 of Paul McCartney's theme song, which in all fairness shouldn't be considered an indication of its quality. After all, for a time I was also the proud owner of the single "City of Crime" from the movie Dragnet. (I'm sure that's something Tom Hanks would like to wish out of existence.)
Anyway, like a surprising number of '80s comedies -- in particular those spoofing the spy business -- Spies Like Us starts off with a very, very, very, very, very, very, very serious scene that sets the plot in motion before we're introduced to our would-be heroes. In this case, high-level intelligence operatives Bruce Davison and William Prince -- along with General Ripper-ish military men Steve Forrest and Tom Hatten -- are sent secret satellite photos of the Soviet ICBM site that they plan on hijacking for their own underhanded purposes. (There's a nifty comic touch where the hapless courier carrying the print-outs has to be locked in a closet before they will open the briefcase that's handcuffed to his wrist, but apart from that the scene is played more or less straight.) Then and only then do we get to meet our stars: the wisecracking slacker (Chase) goofing off at the State Department and the uber-geek (Aykroyd) toiling away in the bowels of the Pentagon. Watched over by then-president Ronald Reagan (who actually receives a screen credit at the end of the film), both are informed that they are due to take the foreign service examination the next day, which puts them on a collision course with wackiness as they both arrive late for the test, which is overseen by humorless monitor Frank Oz. After Chase is caught flagrantly cheating and the two of them cause a major disturbance, they're hand-picked by Davison and Prince to receive training as GLG-20's and be sent out into the field as soon as possible.
If I had to pick one reel that encapsulates the essence of the big-budget comedies of the mid-'80s, it would have to be Spies Like Us's training sequence, in which Chase and Aykroyd are put through their paces by a stone-faced Bernie Casey while a tight-lipped Matt Frewer (post-Crimson Permanent Assurance, pre-Max Headroom) looks on. As long as it's content to force them to jump into a pool of muck to avoid getting machine-gunned to death, test their G-force threshold, or strap them into a wingless glider that immediately plummets off its perch and crashes to the ground, Spies Like Us is a joy to behold and the obscene amount of money that it took to make (just look at all the extras doing their exercises in the background of every shot or try to count the number of explosions that go off during the obstacle course scene) seems utterly worth it. Once the two of them are dropped into the Pakistani desert, though, the movie becomes a lot less sprightly, even if this is the part of the film that features Terry Gilliam's juicy cameo (as a Swiss doctor working for the U.N.) and introduces the main love interest, Donna Dixon (who was soon to be Mrs. Dan Aykroyd). This is also the point where the film makes its debt to the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "Road" pictures of the '40s plain by having a golf ball land in the middle of their tent, followed by Hope who asks if he can play though and gets one parting shot ("Doctor, doctor... Glad I'm not sick.") on his way out.
The main problem with this stretch of the film (apart from the fact that it takes place in a part of the world that has much different associations for viewers today than it did a quarter century ago) is that it isn't long before the story gets bogged down in the serious plot again when it turns out that Dixon and her partner (played by Brazil co-writer and supporting player Charles McKeown) are the real GLG-20's that Chase and Aykroyd are supposed to be decoys for. After they completely botch a simple appendix operation while trying to pass themselves off as surgeons, they get in touch with their superiors who send them across the border into Russia, where they're weighed down by cumbersome (but funny-looking) winter outfits and things pick back up when Chase is captured by KGB and Aykroyd has no choice but to rescue him. (My favorite moment: a live grenade lands in Chase's lap and he asks what it is. Aykroyd cries out, "You don't want it!" and miraculously the gunfire ceases long enough for Chase to casually stand up and toss the grenade away. This, of course, results in a building blowing up four times in succession. I guess Landis felt the standard three explosions wasn't explody enough.)
Once Chase has been freed from the KGB's clutches (with all of his fingers intact), he and Aykroyd help Dixon carry out her now-solo mission (since McKeown has violently bit the dust -- anybody who complained about Pineapple Express's body count obviously forgot that it was far from the first mainstream comedy with a death toll), which involves commandeering and launching the Soviet missile so the men behind the scenes (who, it must be said, are safe and secure in an underground bunker) can test out their Star Wars defense system. (Its failure to connect with the target leads to one of my other favorite moments: when the errant laser beam destroys MTV's satellite, it causes the television set of two teenagers to blow up, after which they exclaim, "Wow!" and "Excellent!") After that it's up to our heroes to save the day, which they do just in the nick of time, leading to a happy ending for them and, having bonded over '50s rock 'n' roll, their new Soviet pals, who lead the disarmament talks between the two countries. Many people credit Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev with introducing the policies that lead to the end of the Cold War, but clearly the way was paved for him by the improbably named Emmett Fitz-Hume and Austin Millbarge.
Spies Like Us may not have single-handedly ended the Cold War, but it apparently provided some solace to those who were living under repressive Soviet rule. In a 2004 interview with the AV Club, director John Landis told an anecdote about a Czech film critic who acquired a bootleg tape of the film and would hold furtive screenings in his garage, taking delight in the mere fact that the movie was "making fun of the Russians and the Americans." Apparently, even political comedy as defanged as Spies Like Us may have had a liberating effect for those on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Dr. Strangelove must've blown that Czech critic's mind.
I was certainly aware of Spies Like Us and had probably caught a few minutes of the film on television over the years -- long enough to recognize what it was and then move on -- but before this project, I had never sat through the entire movie from beginning to end. As a relative newcomer to this film, I wanted the full Spies Like Us immersion experience, so in addition to watching the film twice, I also screened the recent Family Guy episode "Spies Reminiscent of Us" (which functions as an informal sequel to the film) and the music video for Paul McCartney's title song.
The 1980s were sort of a second 1950s. Reagan was essentially the second coming of Eisenhower -- a vaguely paternalistic and folksy populist-conservative -- and American popular culture had once again cycled around to lighthearted and frivolous fads. Most of all, the Cold War was again front and center, this time due to the escalating arms race, thus enshrining the "Russkies" once more as our feared and mocked national bogeymen. During this era, there was a pretty surefire winning formula for making hit movie comedies: (1) Hire John Landis or Ivan Reitman as a director. (2) Have one or more stars from Saturday Night Live -- or, in a pinch, SCTV -- in the cast. (3) Commission Elmer Bernstein to write an epic score. (4) Get various random celebrities to do cameos. There! Instant box office smash! It was a good system, and it provided moviegoers with many hours of diversion and entertainment.
Spies Like Us is one of the less-lauded products of that system, and it illustrates how no formula is actually "magic." Clearly, this is a technically well-made film (with a robust $22 million budget -- in 1985 dollars!) and it never grates on the nerves the way a truly incompetent comedy can, but by the same token, I found myself merely nodding agreeably at it and occasionally chuckling at a line every 5 minutes or so. I agree that the movie's strongest material comes near the beginning. Both Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase get showcase moments here before they're teamed up. In particular, I liked how Chevy's character bluffed his way through an uncomfortable press conference (involving America's covert actions in South America) with a mixture of vague doubletalk and silly distractions. Aykroyd, meanwhile, shines in a scene which has him confront a lazy and spiteful supervisor who aims to keep him slaving away in a dank basement. It's no Tom Hanks-and-Dan-Hedaya-in-Joe-Vs.-The-Volcano, mind you, but as office drone wish fulfillment, it gets the job done. The first big Chase/Aykroyd team-up scene -- the Foreign Service Board exam scene with test administrator Frank Oz -- is one of the film's few successful sustained comic sequences, as Chase tries ever-more-absurd strategies of cheating on the test and eventually ropes a reluctant Aykroyd into his nonsense. Throughout these early moments, we get to see Chase and Aykroyd doing what they do best. As in many of his movies, Aykroyd shows his skill at spitting out jargon-laden exposition with great verbal dexterity and enthusiasm. (No wonder he wound up playing Joe Friday a few years later.) And then there's Chevy, who was possibly the biggest comedy film star in the world in 1985, starring in no less of three of the top 20 movies that year. (Fletch and European Vacation were the other two.) His performance in Spies leans heavily on his strengths: the cheerfully misplaced confidence and swagger, the almost Groucho-like one-liners, the constant stream of outlandish boasts and feeble excuses, and the carefully cultivated ironic distance from the rest of the movie. (NOTE: Since Chase gets most of the movie's jokes, I was glad Aykroyd got the punchline in the renowned "dickfer" scene.)
Unfortunately, once Chase and Aykroyd are actually promoted to "GLG 20s" (the movie's oft-repeated term for high-ranking operatives), the film generally settles into the rhythm of a fairly generic 1980s action comedy. The film's basic training sequence feels cribbed from Stripes, and once the two ne'er-do-well spies are actually placed "in the field," the pace slackens a bit. Even here, the laughs do not entirely dissipate; they just become rarer. I was amused, for instance by the ridiculous pastel "preppie" outfits worn by two KGB agents trying to pass themselves off as ultra-whitebread Americans. These two characters are played by professional uber-honkies Jim Staahl (Nelson Flavor from Mork & Mindy) and James Daughton (Greg Marmalard from Landis's Animal House), and if Spies Like Us ever gets the semi-obligatory remake (with, say, Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn), one of these agents will have to be played by Jim Gaffigan. I also liked how the Russian soldiers guarding a Detroit-bound nuclear missile which functions as the movie's prime McGuffin turn out to be harmless knuckleheads who occasionally rock out to "Soul Finger" by the Bar-Kays and have all been secretly longing to get into each other's parkas. But for every amusing little touch like these, we have to sit through many uninspired chase scenes and endure some fairly lame gags, as when Aykroyd tells Chase a missile can be "recalled" and Chase responds, "Like a defective Pinto?" All in all, watching Spies Like Us in 2010 is valuable mostly for the unintentional insight it gives about the manners and mores of the mid-1980s. Note, please, that the Russians are eventually humanized but that the Pakistanis remain cartoonish monsters who engender no sympathy when they die or have their property destroyed through the antics of Chase and Aykroyd's bumblers.
So Spies Like Us does not have the pop cultural cache of Ghostbusters or Stripes, but as John Landis said in that 2004 interview, "You make a movie, and it goes out there and has a life of its own." Certainly, the biggest tribute to Spies Like Us came in 2009, when Family Guy devoted basically an entire episode to Landis' film. "Spies Reminiscent of Us" has Chase and Aykroyd, now actual spies, renting a house in suburban Quahog, RI. across from the Griffins and roping the Griffins' dog, Brian, and their baby, Stewie, into a plot involving brainwashed "sleeper agents," including the town's hapless mayor, Adam West. Eventually, all four heroes travel to Russia in pursuit of West, and the plot culminates with another missile being launched at the United States and then recalled at the last second. I have to say that the basic Spies Like Us plotline functions a little better at 22 minutes than 102 minutes, and the Family Guy writers came up with somewhat sharper jokes than those found in the original film, as when Russian premier Vladimir Putin seemingly threatens the heroes with a series of ominous-looking weapons, all of which turn out to have benign purposes. (One is a coat hanger, another a cigarette lighter, etc.) And little Stewie Griffin finally calls out Chase on his mock-innocent schtick: "Aw, come on, Chevy, you should've known what he was talking about!" Still in all, the moments I enjoyed most in this episode were part of the B plot, in which Peter Griffin -- stung by criticism from Chase and Aykroyd -- forms an ill-fated improv troupe with his buddies to prove he's funnier than those professional comedians.
Finally, as regards that Paul McCartney music video, I can only say that rock critic Tim Riley, assessing Paul's solo career in the flawed but worthwhile Beatles book Tell Me Why, was being generous when he said the song "sounds like a discarded Queen arena anthem." To me, the song sounded like Paul's attempt to sing the words "spies like us" as many times as possible over a catchy yet unmemorable beat. The video, shot in and around the Abbey Road studios, captures Paul during a truly dweebish stage of his career (feathered hair, dorky sweaters) as he, Chase, and Aykroyd make funny faces and try on various disguises. The whole sorry affair ends with the three men in a blasphemous recreation of the Abbey Road album cover. Truly, "Spies Like Us" is no "Live and Let Die."
Next up: The project kicks off Neglected Middle Sequels Month with a thorough investigation of Back to the Future Part II.