I may be a secret agent, but I’m French nonetheless.
—OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin)
The success of early-1960s James Bond films hinged on Sean Connery’s cool, above-it-all wit, a visible self-awareness that encouraged audiences not to take anything too seriously. The elaborate gunplay, spectacular explosions, and diabolical villains played second fiddle to the ever-cool Bond.
The parodies of that dynamic have become nearly as famous—and numerous—as the original franchise. The latest of these, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, offers a light, diverting entertainment. Set in 1967, 12 years after OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, the film opens on secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (Jean Dujardin) enjoying some time off with a bevy of beautiful women. Needless to say, his respite is interrupted. A former high-ranking Nazi is blackmailing the French government, threatening to reveal a list of French collaborators. OSS 117 agrees to deliver the ransom and recover the list.
From this premise follows a rather uneven comedy. OSS 117 is always the butt of the joke: he’s casually sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, and a staunch defender of what he calls “de Gaulle’s France.” Interactions with anyone other than another privileged, white Frenchman inevitably produce an unwitting gaffe on his part. At Rio’s German embassy, he is informed that not all Germans are Nazis and responds offhandedly, “I’ve heard that theory.” Meeting the Mossad agents who are also hunting former Nazis, he looks perplexed. “Hunt a Nazi with Jews?” he asks, “How strange. He’d recognize them.” Introduced to his female Jewish partner, he assumes she’s his secretary. Etc.
Thus much of the film’s verbal humor relies on the protagonist’s breezy ignorance, while the visual humor spoofs the conventions of 1960s adventure cinema. Split-screen telephone calls split again, and again, and again, as more parties pick up the line, leaving the screen incoherently fractured. Gauzy flashbacks reveal OSS 117’s troubled past (as a trapeze artist, he once let a man fall to his death and now he’s afraid of heights).
If these sorts of gags are obvious, others are more obscure. Stretches of OSS 117: Lost in Rio pass without recognizable jokes, visual or otherwise. Every so often, the secret agent’s outsized ego collides with his general cluelessness. He’s a high-status buffoon in the Stephen Colbert mode, but without the verbal dexterity. (Though, granted, something may be lost in the subtitles’ translation.) OSS 117’s ineptitude, born of the gap between his fantasy world and the real one, is another running gag. Hot on the trail of Von Himmel, he asks the Germany embassy, “Would it be possible, if it exists, to consult a list of former Nazis residing in Brazil?”
As it delivers such absurdities, the movie creates and sustains its own limited world. Expecting much more (plot coherence or strong character development) would miss the point. OSS 117, like Bond, is more a concept than an actual person: he’s an incarnation of self-absorbed suavity, played to comic effect. Even when he’s only intermittently funny, it’s hard not to wonder what he’ll do next.