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I brought your orange sher-bert.

Movie

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
(1997)

 

It’s probably safe to suggest Mike Myers’ brand of piss-taking, in its full unfettered glory, wouldn’t go down a storm into today’s environment. Critics had reached a short fuse with him (and, given it flopped, one might argue the public concurred) by the time of 2008’s underrated The Love Guru; his indulgences can be currently found on Netflix, following a hiatus spanning oceans of time, where he can pass relatively unseen and indulge in scatology and genitalia – and conspiracy theories – wholesale; perhaps his time has passed, and he’s considered old, fat and passé, but his “comeback” sparked little conversation, less still ruffled any feathers. The Pentaverate was, it seems, a White Hat exercise, with Myers now a penitent character, but tracing the link between outlook and content can be surprisingly elusive in Hollywood, none more so than one offering a brand of cheeky irreverence.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery arrived without any weight of expectations. Myers’ tide had risen and dispersed after Wayne’s World transferred from a Saturday Night Live sketch to the big screen; the following year he oversaw a botched sequel that did in the region of a 3rd of the original’s business (its plot reconfigured after Sherry Lansing nixed his unauthorised Passport to Pimlico riff) and outright bomb I Married an Axe Murderer (most prominent, repeated use of The La’s There She Goes aside, for the first appearance of the self-styled conspiracy theory that yielded The Pentaverate). Austin Powers did decent, unspectacular sleeper business but had an extraordinary home-entertainment afterlife, hence the sequels (which I initially felt were superior, but in retrospect…)

Austin Powers: I shagged her. I shagged her rotten, baby. Yeah!

I don’t think I’d rewatched this in about 20 years, give or take, but had seen it more than enough times, and heard it quoted more than enough times, and seen more than enough bad impressions, that it needed a long break (sample: “Do I make you horny, baby?”) Myers’ legacy Englishness is much more appealing than any of the Cool Britannia circulating in the latter part of that decade, taking in Bond (of course), Caine (glasses), teeth (generally), Blow-Up (he’s a fashion photographer and is chased by girls), The Prisoner (well, Secret Agent Man) and literary allusions (Mr Bigglesworth). 

The social mores of Swinging London are where it has most fun, naturally, as it’s no fun if Austin is fully reconstituted: “… as long as people are still having promiscuous sex with many anonymous partners without protection while at the same time experimenting with mind-expanding drugs in a consequence-free environment, I’ll be sound as a pound!”; “I bet she shags like a minx”. But it also plays up Austin’s irresistibility; he may have bad teeth, a chest wig and a dad bod, but Vanessa Kensington (Hurley) quickly falls for him, and the fembots blow a fuse as he touches himself in his Union Jack underpants.

When Austin magnanimously pronounces that it’s even better in the ’90s, because now you get freedom and responsibility, Dr Evil dismisses him with “There’s nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster”, and he’s right. No one is really buying it (the movie has Dr Evil flee to an era “When free love no longer reigns, and greed and corruption rule again”, which says it all, Tavistock Institute iniquities aside). After all, he’s utterly superficial in his attitudes and continues to be: see his attraction to Vanessa (concentrating on her jubblies, he fails to observe that Liz has very narrow hips).

Austin’s/Myers’ attitudes take in gender discord and ridicule, such that attempts to pass as the opposite sex receive undisguised opprobrium. In an early scene, a woman at a club is punched by Austin. When she falls to the ground she’s been switched for a bald guy with stubble: “That ain’t no woman. It’s a man, man”. That’s Myers predicting the foibles of the trans movement, right there, man. Later, he tries the same thing with Basil’s (Michael York’s) mother: “She is rather mannish… If that’s a woman, it looks like she was beaten with an ugly stick”. Further, Austin couldn’t “believe Liberace was gay”, while Dr Evil’s father had a penchant for buggery amongst other predilections (“There really is nothing like a shorn scrotum… it’s breath-taking…”).

You can add to the mix religious perversity – Austin had a guru, Guru Shastri: “a chaste man who died of a mysterious disease that had all the hallmarks of syphilis”. See the Dalai Lama for an up-to-date example – and (deceased) Will Ferrell in brownface (“I’m very badly burned”) for exhibits that might now be frowned upon. Of course, much of Myers’ bag is pointing out the disparities between the then-present and bygone-era attitudes while revelling in them, quite rightly (it’s a comedy). Dr Evil is set to blackmail the royal family and wreak havoc on the environment, until he discovers he’s been beaten to the punch (although, wasn’t the ozone layer yesterday’s news by 1997: so 1987?) Consequently, Evil sets on the fear-fulminating standard: hijack some nuclear weapons. 

Much play is made of the debilitating effects of inflation and the arbitrary nature of politics: Austin assumes, on seeing Russians and Americans together, “those capitalist bastards” lost (when really, the system was being stacked to indulge a longer-term, insidious form of “communism”, of the transhumanist bent. Cue fembots). While Virtucon still does dodgy stuff (human trafficking, of organs: see The Pentaverate for the adrenochrome), it’s discovered far more money can be made from “legitimate” business.

You can find your 6 degrees of Dark Hollywood and conspiracy theories in the cast too. Rob Lowe (sex tape) is young No. 2, although only in the UK version. Christian Slater (numerous run-ins with the law, latterly of Mr. Robot) brings Austin some orange sherbet, but only in the UK version. There’s Robert Wagner (what went on on the yacht that night?), Seth Greene (being defamed by Isaac Kappy, who was only posing as a White Hat), not to mention various possibilities of “It’s a man, man” actresses littering the trilogy. Of Scott, the riff on facile self-help therapy is amusing – “I was partially frozen for his whole life” – as is Scott’s “I hate you: I wish I was never artificially created in a lab!

Mostly, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is still pretty funny. It’s perhaps more piecemeal in structure than the later instalments – hence dropping otherwise-deleted scenes into different versions – but the memorable lines and most of all the delivery – “for shits and giggles”; “Sex?”: “Yes please”; “Hello, I’m in a nutshell”; “Don’t have a thrombo!”; “Smoke came out of her jubblies”; the “Sshh”-ing – while the nascent nudity innuendo (including biting the head off a sausage) would receive ever more “creative” treatment as the series continued. There’s a winning level of crudity, with rampant Number 2 jokes, fart jokes and vagina jokes (in one of the alternate endings, Alotta Fagina has changed her name to Sandy). 

Daniel Craig, who knows a thing or two about ineptness when it comes to comedy, opined that Austin Powers had been the death of Bond doing innuendo gags, but the truth was, they’d disappeared with Dalton and made a successful resurgence with Brosnan (“brushing up on a little Danish” came, ahem, the same year). Of course, his was typical of the thick-headed thinking that saw The Bourne Supremacy and thought every movie needed to copy it.

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