Film discussion

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me – Throwback 20

“If you see only one movie this summer, see Star Wars. But if you see two movies, see Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.”

When it came to marketing the sequel to 1997’s unexpected cult hit movie Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, the ‘Mad Men’ were under no illusions as to where they were in the pecking order. The original movie had grossed just $67.8 million – which was still over four times its budget, but small change compared to the Hollywood big boys.

1999 was always going to be the summer of Star Wars, with the franchise’s return coming in The Phantom Menace, the first new film in the saga for 16 years. Playing it very canny, the marketers decided that they’d recognise the fact, doing teasers for the film which not only played up to the audience’s expectations that they would be seeing a trailer for Star Wars, but also acknowledging that the blockbuster flick would be top of everyone’s dance card. It showed that the mojo was strong in this one.

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The original Austin Powers movie took its inspiration from Mike Myers’ English heritage – his parents had originated from Liverpool, before moving to Canada, and his father Eric (from whom Myers later took the name of his production company, Eric’s Boy) made sure he was well versed in British culture, exposing him to classics like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Goodies, Peter Sellers, and Peter Cook & Dudley Moore; this was how Myers also learnt about Jason King, the flamboyant playboy from the ITC series Department S, who was an open influence upon the development of the character of Austin.

There were also traces of The Avengers (the 1960s adventure series), as well as a very big dose of Adam Adamant Lives!, in which the hero finds himself frozen in ice for decades, before being thawed out and finding himself a man outside of his time. The DNA of Austin also has a lot of the Flint movies, starring James Coburn, and – most obviously of all – Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007, with the first film being a direct spoof of many of the various tropes and cliches which plagued that series for decades, and led to a radical reinvention when Daniel Craig was cast.

For The Spy Who Shagged Me, however, Myers decided to go on a slightly different path than before; gone now were so many of the insightful and observational jokes at the expense of the Bond movies, along with the ‘fish out of water’ gags, and in came much broader humour, touching at times on the sort of ‘gross-out’ comedy as seen in the Farrelly Brothers’ films; it’s not chasing sophisticated yuks, that’s for certain.

This retooled approach is best evidenced with the introduction of Fat Bastard, who is a genuine triumph of prosthetics, but not so much for characterisation – he’s deeply unpleasant, only appearing to be there partly for Myers to see how far he can actually push the envelope, and partly so he can try and emulate Peter Sellers, by playing multiple characters all within the same feature film. This would go one step further still in 2002’s Austin Powers in Goldmember (which, thankfully, is far beyond the remit of this particular piece), so it’s Myers doing more than a wee bit of self-indulgence.

With Austin having got spliced to squeeze Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley) in the first picture, the obvious question was how Austin could be a shagadelic swinger if he was hitched. Would there be an On Her Majesty’s Secret Service-type fix, by offing the missus? Well, sort of: it turns out that Vanessa was actually one of Dr. Evil’s Fembots all along. Which makes no kind of sense at all. Was there ever a real Vanessa (given her mum was Austin’s ex-partner, Mrs. Kensington)? Or were they both Fembots all the time? Does it even matter?

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Well, if you’re Mike Myers, evidently not. Clearly, story logic goes wholly out of the window in pursuit of laughs, and it even gets blatantly acknowledged during the sequence where Austin talks about the ramifications and pitfalls of time travel with Basil Exposition (Michael York), who simply says to Austin “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself”, advice which is then given to the audience directly via a break of the fourth wall. So, hang making any sense: just strap in for the big Technicolor ride, turn on, tune in, and drop out.

This time round, they put Austin back on home territory, by taking him on a jaunt back to the 1960s, in order to try and foil Dr. Evil, who’s used Fat Bastard to extract Austin’s mojo from his still-frozen form in 1969. Of course, the fun doesn’t just come from seeing Austin in his element, but by doing things like having Rob Lowe play a younger version of Number Two, giving a killer impersonation of Robert Wagner in the process. The joke gets sharper when you learn the two have actually known each other for years, with Lowe having hung out with one of Wagner’s daughters, so he’d be familiar with all of Wagner’s mannerisms.

Given how familiar Lowe is nowadays – having recently graced our TV screens on Wednesday evenings in ITV’s Wild Bill – it’s worth remembering that at the time The Spy Who Shagged Me was released, his career was in the doldrums. After he was embroiled in a sex tape scandal in 1988, the major parts appeared to have dried up – one of his most high-profile roles afterwards had also been alongside Mike Myers, in 1992’s Wayne’s World, but it was mostly bit parts and uncredited appearances until he got called up to play Young Number Two, so Austin Powers helped redeem his reputation, and he’s not looked back since.

After previously featuring in Twin Peaks, Heather Graham’s breakout role came in 1997’s Boogie Nights, so it was a perfect fit for her to be cast an another sexy retro character, in the form of Felicity Shagwell, Austin’s new live interest, and she does a creditable job in a part which helped to raise her profile further. Somebody else who came to prominence here was the late Verne Troyer as Mini-Me, who made such a big impression that not only did he get a repeat appearance in Goldmember, but was also responsible for the phrase ‘Mini-Me’ becoming the common parlance for someone who’s like a younger or smaller version of you.

As well as the Star Wars connection, the film also capitalises on it being released in the same year as the 30th anniversary of the first Moon landing, and seeing as how Austin travels back to 1969, he manages to co-opt Apollo 11 for a lift all the way up to the lunar surface in order to be able to get to Dr. Evil’s Moonbase. The sequence on the Moon has more than a faint overtone of Moonraker to it, which is certainly no bad thing, and helps add a big and fitting climax to the movie. It’s also a nice – and cheeky – touch to not only use footage of an Apollo launch from Apollo 13, but also employ Clint Howard – who was seen in Mission Control in that movie – as a radar operator here.

The film does have some great jokes and set pieces in it, but it doesn’t feel quite as coherent and solid as the first movie. The Spy Who Shagged Me did take as much at the box office in its opening weekend as its predecessor managed in its entire run, so clearly somebody must have liked it. Sadly, The Spy Who Shagged Me is the living embodiment – along with its sequel – of the law of diminishing returns. Let us hope they don’t do the oft-mooted fourth movie, as Austin Powers has ended up as The Spy Who’s Shagged Out.

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