Background: Most Americans, including me, are only familiar with one famously numbered secret agent: 007. It may come as surprise then, to learn that French writers Jean and Josette Bruce's secret agent, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, was the subject of 143 books in their "OSS 117" series, going all the way back to 1949 - 4 years before Ian Fleming wrote "Casino Royale." OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, is both a re-creation and a parody of the original series. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring French comedian Jean Dujardin, the film was nominated for five César Awards in 2007, winning only for its production design. Based on its smashing success at the French box office, keep an eye out for an OSS 117 sequel, and if you speak French, have fun here. If you don't, this will have to do.
Synopsis: When OSS agent Jack Jefferson goes missing in Cairo in 1955, the French government sends his former partner, OSS 117 - Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (Dujardin), on a mission to not only find Jefferson, but also create peace in a region saturated with spies. OSS 117 is a dashing, misogynistic, ethnocentric Francophile who distributes photos of the French president as gifts and who, like James Bond, always finds his way out of the most improbable circumstances. His guide in Cairo is Jefferson's former assistant, the gorgeous Larmina (Bérénice Bejo), who helped manage the chicken exporting operation that serves as the cover for the OSS agents. Over the course of the next few days in Cairo, OSS 117 gets mixed up with an Islamic fundamentalist group, some Soviet spies, and some optimistic Nazis. Everyone is double-crossing everyone else, and no one is who they seem. The plot and the rushed ending don't really make sense, but, well...that's kind of the point of a spoof.
+ The production design and cinematography - the film just looks beautiful, like a restored classic with extra attention to detail. That it won the César against the likes of Lady Chatterley and Indigènes (Days of Glory) says something about how good it really is.
+ Jean Dujardin - I'd never seen this guy before, but he's a comic genius. I was probably reminded more of Sacha Baron Cohen than anyone else, but I saw Jim Carrey in him as well. Nevertheless, he has his own unique comedic style - and it's on glorious display here.
+ When the spies were reciting cryptic proverbs after the mambo scene.
+ The retro title sequence and fantastic musical score.
+ The scene with the Nazis in the pyramid bunker.
+ That it was filmed in Casablanca, which adequately stands in for Cairo circa-1955.
- Some plodding moments when the action died down, such as the scene at the French embassy and the overdrawn day spent sitting in the SCEP office.
- That the casting was so obviously inaccurate. Bejo and Atika are Argentinian and Portuguese, respectively, and it was a stretch to see them as Egyptian. A minor quibble.
Writing - 8
Acting - 10
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 4
Total: 21/30= 90% = A-
Last Word: It's so hard not to compare OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, but I'll do my best. Its technical aspects are masterful and absorbing, from the Technicolor to the costumes to the music. It may not look as good on DVD, but it was a sight to see in the theater. The laughs start right away, but unfortunately OSS 117 loses its momentum too often, and we're left aching for more campy scenes with Jean Dujardin. Director Hazanavicius does well in not trying to hammer the plot home, but some of scenes are awkwardly placed and the repetitive gags start to lose their flavor. The good news is that Dujardin single-handedly carries this film all the way through the end credits, and several of the scenes (getting lost in the maze of streets, waking to the Mezzuin's call) are truly hilarious. If not for some awkward humor and poor writing in the second act, I would be talking about OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies as a potential new classic.