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Casino Royale With Cheese

OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009)

Seattle International Film Festival

Before James Bond, there was Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath. It’s little known in the English-speaking world that, shortly before Ian Fleming began writing the Bond novels, a Frenchman named Jean Bruce wrote more than 90 books about France’s best secret agent. There was even a series of movies made about agent OSS 117 in the ’60s, although they didn’t attract much international attention. Since the successful reboot of Bond, the OSS 117 movies have been revived. The first one, “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” came out in 2006 to huge French acclaim and surprise global success despite the terrible title. “OSS 117: Lost in Rio” is the first sequel.

The first two scenes are the best. De la Bath (Jean Dujardin, whose César nomination for “Cairo, Nest of Spies” was a surprise on par with Johnny Depp’s Oscar nomination for “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”) arrives at a swinging après-ski party hosted by a countess (Moon Dailly). Multiple women dance with him; when he tires of them, he simply shoves them aside. Suddenly, evilly-laughing Chinese gangsters burst in. In the ensuing shootout, everyone is killed apart from de la Bath and the countess. Standing over the piled bodies of the dancing women, he smirks, “Well, that was nearly a catastrophe.” He then seduces the countess, but not before some insensitive chitchat about her Chinese heritage.

For anyone who has been left slack-jawed by the attitudes on display in most action movies from the ’60s, these scenes are a tonic. Throughout the film, Jimena Esteve’s sets, Nathalie Chesnais’s costumes and Guillaume Schiffman’s cinematography are perfectly designed to duplicate the look of the time. But “Lost in Rio” doesn’t maintain the knowing comedic balance of the initial set-up. De la Bath is sent to Rio to pay a ransom to a Nazi on the run (Rüdiger Vogler) in order to retrieve some incriminating documents. When he asks his boss why not fight, he is reminded he is French. On arrival, de la Bath realizes he must team up with sexy Mossad agent Dolores (Louise Monot) to succeed. It’s easy to list all the times this has been done better elsewhere.

Mr. Dujardin serves every scene with an agreeably large slice of ham, but Ms. Monot doesn’t have the comic chops Elizabeth Hurley displayed in “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.” Nor are the jokey set pieces well integrated with the plot — much more could have been made of the paddleboat and the trapeze accident, for example, not to mention the crocodile. There are a few good gags about de la Bath’s cover identity, but the best jokes are ignored, an oversight all the more obvious since every possible German, Jewish, Chinese and feminist joke is crammed in. But a good deal of the racial humor doesn’t quite manage to spoof the racist attitudes of the time, meaning the film neither has its cake nor eats it.

It’s hard to tell whether the failure of the comedy is the point, or if a great deal is lost in the translation. Director Michel Hazanavicius might have sacrificed plot development and modern sensibilities in order to stay close to the source material. Then again, de la Bath’s CIA contact, Bill Trumendous (Ken Samuels), has such an English-language potty mouth that the film has no hope of reaching a PG-13 rating in America; it’s rated 15 in Britain. As teenage boys are clearly the target audience, this is another peculiar directorial choice. Finally, pandering to religious sensibilities should never be a major consideration, but the fistfight between a Nazi and a man in tights on the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer, albeit a C.G.I. replica, is just in bad taste.

This series could have been a chance for French films to simultaneously have a Bond of their own, and get revenge for the “Pink Panther” series, which was originally designed by the British to magnify every possible French stereotype while including enough slapstick to make the mockery universal. Instead, it looks like this ’60s spy spoof series has already lost its mojo.


Opens on May 5 in New York and Los Angeles and on Jan. 15 in the Britain.

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius; written by Jean-François Halin and Mr. Hazanavicius; director of photography, Guillaume Schiffman; edited by Reynald Bertrand; production designer, Maamar Ech-Cheikh; music by Ludovic Bource; costumes by Charlotte David; produced by Eric and Nicolas Altmayer; released by Music Box Films (United States) and ICA Films (Britain). In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A. and rated 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Jean Dujardin (Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath/OSS 117), Louise Monot (Dolores), Alex Lutz (Heinrich), Rüdiger Vogler (Von Zimmel), Ken Samuels (Trumendous) and Reem Kherici (Carlotta).


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