Four years ago, director Michel Hazanavicius and co-writer Jean-François Halin pulled out of mothballs the French pulp icon OSS 117 AKA Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath - a super-spy on the model of Britain's James Bond, though Jean Bruce's OSS novels predate Ian Fleming's 007 novels by four years - and gave him a brand new adventure, called OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, with comic actor Jean Dujardin playing the unflappable ladies' man and imperialist enforcer. The film was set in 1955, and filmed to look rather eerily like a film of that era, but it was unmistakably a product of a modern mind: this OSS 117 wasn't a suave hero, but an incompetent loon with an unfailing sense of his skills and cultural superiority that was completely at odds with every situation he found himself in, not that he ever noticed it. Sometimes a loving homage, mostly a savage parody, it was a completely hilarious send-up of hopelessly outmoded tropes, something of a French Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, but funnier still.
Last year, Hazanavicius, Halin, and Dujardin took another swing at the idea, and so American art houses are currently witnessing the limited run of OSS 117: Lost in Rio, which would thus accordingly be the French Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Not a compliment.
It's now 1967, and OSS 117 has just completed some mission in the Far East, which involved a whole lot of dead Chinese people. Back in France, he's given a new assignment: travel to Brazil, where a former Nazi, Dr. Von Zimmel (Rüdiger Vogler), is ransoming a microfilm listing all of the French citizens who collaborated with the Germans during the war, for 50,000 francs. He has requested OSS 117 personally to courier the money, which seems a bit silly to the nation's self-proclaimed greatest spy, but the chance to vacation in Rio de Janeiro on the company's dime is more than he can pass up, which is how he ends up in South America with a seemingly endless supply of vengeful Chinese on his heels, a foul-mouthed CIA agent, Bill Trumendous (Ken Samuels), perhaps competing and perhaps helping, and a curvy Mossad agent, Dolorès Koulechov (Louise Monot), enlisting the Frenchman's aid in bringing Von Zimmel to justice in an Israeli court. There are also hippies, one of whom is Von Zimmel's son, Heinrich (Alex Lutz).
In keeping with all those B-level spy movies of the '60s, the plot only barely hangs together and has quite a few moments where the narrative can only advance thanks to one absurd coincidence or another; but at any rate, we're not here for the spying, but the jokes along the way. Mostly, these are a lamer re-tread of what seemed so cutting and fresh in Cairo, Nest of Spires: OSS 117 is a thoughtless misogynist, he can't fathom why any culture would fail to recognise the inherent superiority of white Europeans, and he's completely helpless when he has to do any actual spy work himself. And I say "lamer re-tread", though truth be told, the biggest problem with Lost in Rio isn't that the jokes are all recycled: the first movie was awfully damn funny, and the film mostly eschews the common comedy sequel sin of repeating the same jokes but way too big for their own good.
Rather, the problem with the new movie is the context of the jokes, which simply doesn't serve comedy as well as the first go-round. Cairo, Nest of Spies achieved much of its unexpectedly sharp satire from the contrast between OSS 117 and the traditions of Islam: it's well and good to have a man make barbed comments about the gender inequality of that religion and act all smug about how much more civilised his people are than all of that, except that the joke was of course that OSS 117 was every bit as blindly chauvinistic and self-certain as the worst parts of Islam. It was, in essence, a mocking reference to the all-too-contemporary Western idea of being so much better and more reasonable than "they" are: yeah, have you looked in a mirror?
Lost in Rio ditches anything like modern relevance by making the victims Nazis, and having the bulk of the hero's idiotic notions come in the form of bluntly naïve anti-Semitism directed at his Israeli counterpart. The joke is no longer on Western insensitivity, so much as it is about this one particular idiot - and though it's funny to start, it wears thin after 100 minutes. There are only so many ways you can play the "wait, why again don't Jews like Nazis?" card, and Lost in Rio uses all of them, at least a couple of times.
Then too, it becomes something of a "spot the reference" game in a way that the first film never did. Specific allusions to the James Bond series, the Matt Helm series of Bond parodies, and the work of Alfred Hitchcock (the climax manages to nail Saboteur, Vertigo, and North by Northwest almost in one breath) abound, and while it is, after a fashion, clever, it's not really funny.
The film's humor tends rather towards the broad and jokey than the pointed, and it simply leaves a shallow feeling in its wake. It's honestly kind of lowbrow, and I don't imagine that the filmmakers would take issue with my saying so. But for as much as lowbrow humor has its place, it's nevertheless a disappointing follow-up to Cairo, Nest of Spies, which wasn't exactly the highest-brow thing in the world, but still went for the jugular as much as possible, instead of wan absurdity and a moronic clown as its centerpiece. I guess I can sum up the new film this way: it's amusing but forgettable, while the original was hilarious and lasting.
Even so, the sequel bests its predecessor in one way that I wouldn't have even thought possible: it's even more perfect a re-creation of period filmmaking techniques. As the first film did, so does Lost in Rio use exactly the right camera angles and editing, while possessing a slightly browned-out color palette and soft focus that makes it almost impossible to believe it hasn't been sitting in a vault somewhere for four decades. But Lost in Rio ups the ante by incorporating that oh-so-'60s use of split-screen and duplicated frames, so very pop artsy and playful. Not coincidentally, a lot of the best jokes are based mostly in the exaggeration of this very technique, pushing an already gaudy trick to the point where it's absolutely idiotic. The jokes are at the expense of a filmmaking mentality, you might say, which is a bit more esoteric than jokes at the expense of one clueless racist, but for my money, they're a good bit richer for that.
But alas, though Lost in Rio is a fleet bit of fun, it never cuts any deeper than "they sure did some wacky things in '60s movies that have aged badly, amiright?" That's still better comedy than making wandering gags about Nazis, which would have perhaps worked if the film were actually made in 1967; but by sacrificing the knowing anachronisms of its predecessor, Lost in Rio also sacrifices most of its wit.