The pervasive view of America as a ‘global policeman’ enforcing law and order, as featured in this Reagan era fantasy, seems to be long gone. Missing in action from the world’s search for a vaccine, unable to chair a G7 meeting unless Russia is invited to the table, it’s hard for those who knew America as an admired and feared ally to accept that the decades of the country’s greatness post WWII is over, at least for now.
Despite a healthy box-office take, John Landis’s 1985 comedy has also been largely consigned to the dustbin of film history; the director’s output was on the slide by the mid-80’s, and although Dan Ackroyd was responsible for the initial idea, this ain’t no Ghostbusters. But it is a watchable comedy, front-loaded with gags that thin out as conventional spy movie mechanisms take over to run unchecked as a missile crisis is averted.
Like Three Amigos!, we’re looking backwards here to a happier past; the paradigm is the Road movies that featured Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, with the latter enjoying a brief golf-themed cameo. With John Belushi gone, Ackroyd turned to Chevy Chase, already a little long in the tooth to play ladies-man Emmett Fitz-Hume. Chase’s character is a cheat and a fake, and so is presented as a rising star of American diplomacy. He’s paired with tech-savant Austin Milbarge (Ackroyd), and the two men are set up as decoys for a secret mission into the Soviet Union. After a lengthy training process, the boys are parachuted behind enemy lines, but turn out to luck their way into action when their supposedly more-able rivals fail.
With a theme song by Paul McCartney, the elements are here for a genre classic, but most of the interest is around the edges. Landis, as with 1985’s Into the Night, seems more interested in cameos that story, and pulls in such talents as Costs Gravas, Ray Harryhausen, Terry Gilliam, Michael Apted, Larry Cohen, Joel Coen and Sam Raimi for brief appearances that distract. The mix of stern military drama and snow-bound pratfalls feels rather stodgy, even if Ackroyd and Chase don’t spare any effort to entertain; the best scene sees Chase using various hidden crib-sheets to fake his way through an exam under the vigilant watch of Frank Oz.
The passable comedy of Spies Like Us notably failed to recoup a third of it’s North American box-office in the rest of the world; the trope of Americans saving the day was yet to become a popular theme until the Berlin wall finally fell, and tore down the restriction and protection that symbolised the Cold War.