If you had told me that we would be sitting down to watch a film by Michel Hazanavicius, starring Jean Dejardin and Bérénice Bejo, I’d have thought, “Great! I haven’t managed to see The Artist yet!” Fortunately, what would have been an inestimable disappointment was staved off by the fact that I knew the film was the 2006 spy parody OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies before I knew the cast and crew.
So rather than watch an Oscar-winning film, we saw a slapstick spy comedy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The film does try to put together a bit of a plot. OSS 117 (get it? “Double-One Seven”?) is a French super spy, allegedly, though it’s pretty clear off the bat that OSS 117 is a blundering moron. The intro to the film shows a flashback to an operation in Nazi Germany that he ran with his good friend Jack Jefferson. (It appears that Jack Jefferson was a French spy, but perhaps I missed something.) When 117 learns that Jack has gone missing in Cairo, he not only goes into repeated From Here To Eternity montage mode, but he also gets a free trip to Egypt with the goal of figuring out what happened to Agent Jack.
He arrives in the Cairo airport with pointed questions about the quality of the veal stew. This results in a fairly awkward conversation before he finally finds the person who understands the code words – Jack’s secretary Larmina. She informs 117 that Jack had been running a…well, it’s not properly a chicken farm, it’s more like a live chicken warehouse.
Larmina doesn’t take too kindly to 117 at first, largely because of his sexism and insensitivity. I guess that’s fair. In fact, many of the film’s jokes revolve around 117’s inability to understand differences between French and Egyptian culture. For instance, he assaults a muezzin because the morning call to prayer was disturbing his sleep. This causes 117 even more trouble than he would normally have gotten into, because Larmina, tired of the insults to her culture and religion, turns 117 over to a violent underground religious faction. He escapes.
In the meantime he hooks up with (in both figurative senses) an old flame, the former Egyptian princess Al Tarouk, whose father has been deposed. It turns out that there is a missing Soviet cargo ship full of arms, and everybody would seem to be after it – Al Tarouk presumably to help get her father back into power, the religious faction to help themselves into power, and all of this has something to do with Jack’s disappearance.
OSS 117 begins to be followed by a mysterious hooded figure, who finally attacks him in the warehouse, and the ensuing chicken fight (as in, they literally throw live chickens at each other) is one of the greatest moments of zen ever, even in a deliberately ridiculous film.
Somehow the old Nazis come back into it, in a secret chamber under one of the Great Pyramids of Cheops. But once again, 117 escapes, this time due to his skill in reading hieroglyphics (or more technically, his ability to identify which out-of-place hieroglyphic was the garage door remote button that would activate the shut-the-trap-door-on-the-Nazis feature of the pyramid bunker. It was really thoughtful of them to build that in.
In the end, 117 is finally confronted on a pier by Jack himself – who turns out to be the hooded follower. Jack went rogue for some reason or another, but his scars mostly seem to arise from his memories of the oceanside romps that he and 117 had – his memories of those scenes are a bit less nostalgic than our hero’s. But before Jack can kill 117, he has to expose his plan (why don’t they learn?), giving either Larmina or the Princess the time to knock Jack off. I can’t remember which, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that next, the Princess and Larmina get into an epic cat fight which results in them getting stripped down to their undies and 117 can’t quite bring himself to stop it. But finally he decides to fire a warning shot…and accidentally hits and kills the Princess instead. Anchored somewhere off the pier is the cargo ship full of
arms fireworks, and 117 blows it up, simultaneously introducing Egypt to a new era of peace and the Fourth of July.
Perhaps the nicest thing about the movie is that while it was subtitled, it apparently did not rely very extensively on puns for humor, which means that us American pig-dogs get to understand most, if not all, of the jokes. It wasn’t a great film, but if you can at least recognize that comedy need not be art to be funny, it’s a pleasant enough hour and a half.