Movie: Spies Like Us (1985)

Funny how I remember dragging my mom to take me to see Spies Like Us in its first run in 1985.  I’m not sure why I was so dead-set on seeing it.  If I had taken any time to think about the movie in the nearly four decades since then, I doubt I would have remembered anything about it.

Maybe I had to see it because of Paul McCartney’s title song.  It is very catchy but, like many contagious things, it is pretty terrible.  Think of his “Wonderful Christmastime”.  Or syphilis.  I now find it baffling I was a fan of his before I was a fan of The Beatles.  But I’ll admit I had crap taste in music then.  My taste in movies wasn’t that much better.

Spies Like Us stars Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd in what is essentially an 80’s spin on the Hope and Crosby “road” pictures from decades prior.  It doesn’t have the charm of the best entries in that series.  Those who are unfamiliar with those films will likely be confused by Bob Hope’s cameo here.

The plot, on its surface, is pretty clever.  A US intelligence agency has a two-agent team it wants to send to Russia to disarm a nuclear missile that’s ready to launch on a mobile transport.  Afraid of losing any of their best agents, they decide to also send a pair of decoy agents.

This is where our two leads come in.  Chase is a slacker who intends to become the third generation of his family to be a government envoy.  Not that he’s making much of an effort to pass the entrance exam for the program.  Ackroyd is an electronics expert who is secretly doing all of some government jerk’s work for him.  He’s also a quick study when it comes to languages.

The scene where the two blatantly cheat during the exam is pretty funny, if only because it goes so far over the top.  Chase enters the room wearing an eyepatch and a fake arm in a cast.  Frank Oz, as the monitor for the test, watches in astonishment as Chase fakes a heart attack and Ackroyd pretends to be a doctor, as the former furiously copies answers from the tests of others while he flails around the room. 

Turns out the penalty for cheating on the exam is promotion for these patsies.  Next for them is basic training, even if it is a bit more advanced than how boot camp is normally portrayed.  Actual explosions on the obstacle course ensure we know we are watching a John Landis movie, even if nobody died for real behind the scenes. 

Upon completion of their training, the two are airdropped into Pakistan, where they are to meet their contacts.  They immediately meet two preppie (it was an 80’s thing—look it up) guys who claim to be their liaisons.  Ackroyd notices one of the guys is wearing a Russian knockoff of a Timex watch and rightfully concludes these are KGB agents. 

Giving those agents the slip, the two next stumble into a United Nations field hospital operated by Charles McKeown and Donna Dixon.  McKeown was one of the writers of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and it is weird to see the director of that movie make a cameo here as one of the hospital’s doctors.  It is even weirder to see, among his fellow surgeons, stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen and Supermarionation artist Derek Meddings.  Later scenes will have a great many other cameos from directors such as Sam Raimi, Larry Cohen and Costa-Gravas.

All those doctors, and a few more, lead to an interminable scene where every character is introduced to every other character by simply “Doctor”.  It sounds funnier in concept than it is in execution, and it greatly outstays its welcome.

Chase and Dixon seem to have an immediate spark, though there is more to her character than is apparent at this point.  Still, she doesn’t immediately slap away his hands when he, claiming he has no feeling in them, clamps them onto her breasts.  You have to wonder what her real-life husband Ackroyd thought about this, but I guess he was OK with anything they thought might get a laugh.

That scene illustrates what is the main problem with the movie today, and that is how women don’t fare well in the humor.  Honestly, it should have been a problem back then, as well, but I doubt teenaged me had any objections.  In a scene where Chase is interrogated by KGB agents, they ask what his objective is, and he replies he objects to taking a woman to dinner and then she doesn’t put out.  When Chase and Ackroyd begin their training, and they find themselves surrounded by ninjas (because the 80’s), the former opens the photo display in his wallet and says,  “This is my sister.  You can all have her.  I hear she’s very good.”

Not that people outside the US fare much better, as everybody in the Pakistan and Russia scenes are stereotypes.  Still, I am a bit embarrassed I laughed when Chase gets out his “Conversational Pashtu” book and tells a menacing crowd, “If you let me go, you can keep my friend’s head for polo.”

I don’t want to make Spies Like Us sound worse than it is, but I do want to emphasize it isn’t very good, either.  From the perspective of this being decades later, I’m confused as to why somebody would make a movie that would (should?) only be funny to boys in their early teens, yet is a tribute to the Hope and Crosby “road” pictures that went out of fashion a decade or so before that audience was born. 

Dir: John Landis

Staring Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd, Donna Dixon

Watched on Kanopy