Spies Like Us (1985)
Written by Dan Aykroyd, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel
Directed by John Landis
John Landis is a filmmaker that helped shape American wide-release movies for decades that followed the 1980s. His own career hasn’t gone in a direction that matches, but his influence has resonated. He directed Animal House & The Blues Brothers, starting the transition of former Saturday Night Live cast members to movies. Landis helmed Trading Places and Coming to America, which set Eddie Murphy into a stellar trajectory. Beyond films, Landis directed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Black or White” music videos, which have a hallowed place in the pop culture Hall of Fame. Most of his work, though, falls into the “okay” or “terrible” categories with Spies Like Us being one of those.
The United States Defense Department becomes aware of Soviet movement that has put a nuclear missile in a remote area of the Pamir Mountains that appears to be positioned to strike on America. They need two decoys agents to draw attention away from the real ones and find those dupes in Austin Millbarge (Dan Akroyd) and Emmett Fitz-Hume (Chevy Chase). The two men come to their attention after a ridiculous attempt to cheat on the foreign service exam started by Emmett. The duo is sent to a quickie boot camp and then dropped into Afghanistan, where they immediately get targeted by their Soviet counterparts.
The initial conceit of Spies Like Us is to remake the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road To… series of movies that would put those respective actors in a foreign land engaged in a series of comedic episodes. The basic idea of making more movies in that vein with talented comedians of the day isn’t a bad one. The one thing to avoid would be the caricaturing of non-Americans, which Spies Like Us does okay, not perfect, though. The first act of the movie does have some very good laughs, I think Chevy Chase when he dryly responds to a situation can be hilarious. There is a bit when the duo is lost in the woods and hear an aggressive scream in the shadows. Chase quickly remarks, “Was that me?” and it’s delivered in such a sharp, tight way that I had to laugh. I wish the rest of the film had kept up with that.
Spies Like Us is an example of a movie that hasn’t aged well due in part to sexism and some lazy writing. There’s not enough spy movie parody for it to stand as a spoof, and the relationship between Emmett and Austin is paper-thin. When I reflected back on the inciting moment that brings the two together, it’s rushed and shallow. I know that the screenwriters were simply trying to hammer in the inevitable to get the movie going, but I never understood why these two would team-up and then by so loyal to each other. From a meta-view of the picture, I know Chase & Akroyd have a history at SNL, but the film begins with them as strangers.
If you think the lack of character development for the leads is terrible, wait until you see every supporting character. Every person that crosses paths with our spies is one-dimensional and never given a chance to develop themselves. Women are mainly hot objects that the boys want to bed. Male characters get a little more variety with white men being mostly buffoonish bureaucrats and a few others standing there as background. By the time you get to the final act, things just fall apart, and you can feel yourself being rushed through so that the picture can finally end.
John Landis is such a frustrating filmmaker because, in certain instances, you see how bright and funny his work can be, and then in others, it feels like he just could care less about making the movie (as is the case for Spies Like Us). This is an utterly forgettable comedy that aims low and leans into dumb sl