Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

(Jay Roach, USA, 1997)


For about its first twenty minutes, this debut film in the Austin Powers series raises one’s spirits and expectations very high. Austin (Mike Myers) choreographs a swinging, sexy fashion shoot on the streets of London, runs from his screaming girlie fans … and suddenly bursts into a groovy dance, along with every limber passer-by and bobby. Having splashed this ’60s pop culture nightmare all over the screen, the film gets down to its particular parodic task: a melange of elements from the James Bond ‘international espionage’ genre, including a host of crazy futuristic gadgets, a svelte sidekick who’s good with her fists (Mimi Rogers) and a mean villain named Dr. Evil (also played by Myers) who has a Dr. Strangelove air.

When Evil shoots himself into space, cryogenically frozen, the government decides that Austin must be frozen too. Thawed out in today’s world for a re-match with his old foe, Austin of course behaves in the only manner he knows – such as instantly wanting to ‘shag’ Vanessa (Elizabeth Hurley), who happens to be the daughter of his former partner. I kept hoping the plot would reveal Austin to in fact be Vanessa’s father – but that would perhaps be a weighty complication for such a breezy divertissement.

Myers serves as writer and co-producer as well as star, and that probably makes him the ‘auteur’ of the piece over debuting director Jay Roach. The film continues in many ways the comic sensibility we recognise from Myers’ fabulous Wayne’s World movies: a taste for intricate pastiche; a delight in gags that trade on the corny and obvious; and a vulgarity centred on the usual bodily functions and embarrassments.

In other words, Myers walks a curious, precarious highwire stretched between ‘postmodern’ knowingness and ‘dumb and dumber’ burlesque. Someone should have told him, this time around, that his audience is not so dumb as to need almost every idea for a funny scene laboriously played out twice across the course of the movie.

We have yet to see the ultimate ‘time warp’ movie about a character experiencing severe culture shock in a future era. Austin Powers is even less inventive in this regard than the Back to the Future  movies. Apart from a predictable string of jokes comparing ’60s free love to ’90s safe sex, and a wasted scene where Austin watches a newsreel compilation of momentous world events, the film makes almost nothing of the changes in politics, culture and social mores.

One of the biggest problems with Austin Powers is the rather tired sense of déjà vu it induces. The Bond craze had already spawned numerous parodies by the end of the ’60s, and they are in most respects more excessive and outrageous than this take-off. A mini-festival of Modesty Blaise (1966), Casino Royale (1967), What’s New, Pussycat? (1965) and The Tenth Victim (1965) would be a more eye-popping visual experience – and also a lot more fun.

Nonetheless, there is a fair amount of wicked pleasure to be had from Austin Powers, especially for those who may be just now discovering such pop-camp delights of the ’60s as The Avengers or Get Smart. And there are some truly wonderful set-pieces, such as the scene (worthy of Barbarella, 1968) in which Austin does a rude dance in order to short-circuit a small army of seductive killer ‘fembots’; and the ultimate face-off between Austin and his nemesis Dr. Evil, which manages to subvert that classic melodramatic line spoken by villains to heroes in hundreds of action movies: “You and I, we are not so different … “

MORE Austin: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Austin Powers in Goldmember

MORE Roach: Meet the Fockers, Mystery, Alaska

© Adrian Martin August 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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