Get Smart, Johnny English …

So this weekend I went out and rented a couple of movies, due to the very good deal at the video store down the block (literally) where from Sunday to Thursday if you rent a new release you get an older release for free.  Since I don’t generally catch movies when they first come out, this lets me watch older movies that I missed the first time around and get a recent one that I thought might be interesting.  Basically, it’s a win-win for me, even if I don’t find an older movie that I haven’t seen, since I can just rent one of my older favourites and watch it.

Like this weekend.  It was a rainy afternoon, and I had nothing left to do but laundry, and so thought that renting a couple of movies would be good.  There’s not a lot on the new shelf that interests me, but I hadn’t seen Watchmen yet and heard it was good, so I picked it up.  And then after only browsing for a short while I decided to pick up Johnny English and watch it again.  I’ll say a lot more about Watchmen in another post, but I want to focus on Johnny English here, and relate it to a more recent movie that greatly disappointed me: Get Smart.

Now, I’m a huge fan of the Get Smart TV series.  I have the entire series on DVD, and have watched it a few times.   And that doesn’t count when it was on CBC weekday afternoons after school.  So when they announced the movie, I was interested, and even tempted to actually go to see it in the theatre, an honour reserved for movies that I know I’m interested in like X-Men or The Lord of the Rings.  But, it passed out of theatres before I could get around to seeing it, and so I anxiously awaited it coming out on DVD, and made sure to make one of my Sunday afternoon DVD renting sprees aimed at it.

And … I wasn’t loving it.

The problem I had with the Get Smart movie was that it wasn’t Get Smart.  There were key elements missing.  Sure, they had a slew of references to the TV series, but the tone and the entire movie were just completely different from the series, and completely left out what made the series so much fun.  In the series, Maxwell Smart was, in fact, Secret Agent 86.  He was established.  He had a reputation.  He thought he was an excellent spy, and most of his enemies thought the same thing.  And yet, he was a complete and utter klutz.  Watching the show, you always had in the back of your mind the question: “How did this yahoo get to be one of Control’s top agents?”  And Maxwell Smart got lucky and got help … a lot.  But the fundamental fun premise was that you were wondering how in the world he got to be considered such a super agent.  And Don Adams made sure that, on occasion, you DID get reminded of why he might be able to carry it off, when on occasion he really, really did foil the plot.  He was a clumsy, arrogant idiot, but sometimes he really did carry the ball.

But in the movie, you didn’t have that.  Maxwell Smart in the movie was nothing more than a clerk with the dream of being an agent, and being as good as the top agent.  And so, when he’s incompetent, there isn’t the background thought of “How in the world did this guy get to be such a respected agent?”.  We expect him to screw up, since he isn’t experienced.  When 99 rolls her eyes at his incompetence, it’s a little unfair since he isn’t experienced.  He doesn’t quite have the original Smart’s arrogance and we can all see that it’s unjustified.  And so the main character trait that, for me, makes Get Smart is lost.

This disconnect carried over to the other characters.  99 was a cynical, careworn, experienced agent in the movie, where she was quietly competent — and, basically, on our side — in the series.  Someone recently asked me about whether or not Anne Hathaway made a good 99 and my reply was that I’m sure she would make a good 99 and I hope she gets the chance to be one someday.  But the main villain, Sigfried, is an even worse example.  While you could see 99 as a not unreasonable update or evolution of the character that doesn’t impact the movie as badly as Smart’s shift, Sigfried loses what made him a fan favourite.  In the series, Sigfried was a wonderfully and hilariously menacing villain.  He was mean, but his meanness was tempered by his being, at times, utterly ridiculous.  For example, in one scene where Smart and Sigfried are trying to bribe the Kaos men into imprisoning the other, Sigfried reminds them of the Kaos dance that’s coming up.  When they shift to cover Smart, Smart offers them more money.  They keep their guns pointed at Smart, and Sigfried quips “What can I say?  My men love dancing.”

But in the movie, Sigfried is just brutal and mean.  There’s no humour in him.  He doesn’t screw up at all (no putting his hand into a water pitcher, like what happened once in the TV series).  He insults for the sake of insulting.  He’s, basically, no fun at all.  Brutal villains are a dime a dozen, but goofy ones that can still portray a sense of menace are rare.  That was what made Smart vs Sigfried so great.  And Get Smart, the movie, misses that completely.  Which really sums up the problem with the movie: it was all about the form, but had none of the substance of what made Get Smart great.  It’s Get Smart in name only.

Okay, so after all of that, what about Johnny English?  To me, Johnny English was closer to a Get Smart movie than the Get Smart movie was.  English was a lower level MI7 agent … but he was an agent.  He was asked to do important things, like handle security for the funeral.  And they all go hilariously wrong.  Sure, to really be Smart he’d have to have the reputation, but since at least some people claimed that the Get Smart movie was a prequel this would have worked well: a minor agent — but an agent nonetheless — trying to get to the top gets his chance, screws up, but eventually does solve the case and foil the plot, leaving him the most experienced and so top agent, able to build his reputation.  English was competent at times and demonstrated that, yeah, he knew stuff; we had reason both to think that he should be better than he is and to not be surprised when he pulls off an intelligent plan.

The secondary characters fit as well.  It would take a little work, but only a little work to replace English’s boss with the Chief, even down to him taking him off the case (“Max, I have no choice! You spilled a drink all over the foreign minister!  And broke into Sauvage’s office despite my direct orders not to!”).  Campbell fits an updated 99 far better than the 99 in the movie did.  She’s attractive and competent, and not only can express frustration with English’s foibles but can also believe that, yes, he’s capable of being great.  There’s no real rivalry between them at all, like there is between 99 and Smart in the movie.

But the key, ah, the key is Sauvage.  Sauvage captures the essence of the great Get Smart villains: he’s menacing, but delightfully goofy.  You know he’s evil and willing to stop at nothing to get what he wants … but he’s also goofy enough to screw around with English while putting him down, and ultimately gets undone by shooting his mouth off with a string of insults to the English.  He screws up, but we have a laugh watching him work.  Just like we did with Sigfried.

It’s an incredible shame that the most worthy movie to the series Get Smart isn’t the Get Smart movie, but Johnny English.  It wouldn’t surprise me if somewhere someone said that they were inspired by it, like how David Morgan-Mar says that his parodies of the Bond movies are harder to do because Get Smart did it first.  The movie Get Smart isn’t a bad movie, but it isn’t Get Smart.

I have to remember to buy a DVD copy of Johnny English at some point …

3 Responses to “Get Smart, Johnny English …”

  1. I Play Johnny English Reborn! « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Anyway, today I finally managed to get back to renting movies again, and when I say “Johnny English Reborn” in the new releases rack I had to get it and watch it having loved the first one. […]

  2. Thoughts on “Johnny English Strikes Back” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] “Johnny English” movies are movies that I’ve liked. I really liked the first one and saw it as a better “Get Smart” movie than the “Get …, and found the second one disappointing but that was mostly because it wasn’t the same sort […]

  3. Listen to the Fans! | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] the shallow aspects of what people liked instead of understanding what made it great (like in the “Get Smart” movie. Or “The Force Awakens”.) … at which point, it would be clear that the problem was […]

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