OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/22/08 02:58:03

"What's French for James Bond?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Before "Casino Royale" was made into a big, modern movie with Daniel Craig, there were persistent rumors about Quentin Tarantino wanting to take a crack at it, but having it take place in the Cold War period when it was originally set. It had also previously been filmed as a garish parody of the phenomenon. With "Cairo, Nest of Spies", Michel Hazanavicius does a bit of both of those approaches for Bond's similarly-numbered French equivalent, OSS 117 Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath - its period satire is more pointed than that of, say, "Austin Powers", but still amiably silly.

We start in World War II, where OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin) got his start fighting Nazis. Ten years later, he's on a mission to Cairo, where his fellow agent Jack Jefferson (Philippe Lefebvre) has been murdered while investigating the disappearance of a Soviet freighter. Using a poultry business as a cover, he meets with Jeff's beautiful local assistant, Larmina El Akmar Betouche (Bérénice Bejo), and in addition to the recently deposed King's daughter (Aure Atika) and the Muslim fundamentalist society The Eagles of Keops, he finds that other local food companies also serve as fronts for British, German, and Soviet intelligence.

Cairo, Nest of Spies hits a lot of the standard targets for the spy spoof - the garish costumes, the obvious location captions, the way that the hero just sort of stumbles upon or is led to everything but has women throw themselves at him anyway. Hazanavicius makes sport of older films by amping up the homoerotic undertones any way he can, or having the camera discretely pan away from something only to catch it in a nearby mirror. He and co-writer Jean-François Halin show a bit more teeth by making de la Bath a casual racist and snob. Any audience nostalgia for simpler times that the film may summon is gleefully undercut by reminding the audience of the much more open disdain for different cultures in those simpler times.

It's still funny, though, in large part because Jean Dujardin makes that just one more facet of de la Bath being dim and inappropriate, while Bérénice Bejo responds with charm and grace while making it clear that Larmina wants to end each sentence with "you idiot". They're fun to watch together because they strike just the right balance of antagonism and attraction, with Bejo making a beautiful foil to Dujardin, who is suave and silly in equal measures. Aure Atika isn't bad as the more sexually aggressive princess, and there are plenty of others who are a lot of fun. One of the signs of a good comedy is that even minor characters generally have a chance to be funny, rather than mere plot-advancing filler.

The movie is a nice work of pastiche, seeming generally faithful to the spy adventures of the 1950s and 1960s (though how specifically faithful it is to that era's OSS 117 movies, I couldn't say), but not exaggerating that look too much for cheap "look! something old! isn't that hilarious?" laughs. The animated opening credits and brassy score are particularly fun in that regard. At certain points, the movie does seem to be going on a bit too long, never quite running out of jokes but not having any new ones; it also takes what was a funny moment and overuses it as plot fodder. I do appreciate that Hazanavicius and company make a pretty slick picture; even when it's embracing some of the limitations of its targets it takes care to look good.

It's a fun little movie, though, with a sequel already on the way in France. It straddles the line between parody and pastiche well, and is funny enough to survive the loss of some wordplay in translation.

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