I would rather fail being aggressive than being passive and not trying to control what I can do.
— Dwayne Johnson
Late in the Big Screen Version of Get Smart, lithe and lovely Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) finds herself in a precarious position with a former boyfriend. He’s got her tied up in a speeding vehicle, mayhem spurting all around them, and she’s trying to reason with him, though not very persuasively. When he begins listing her shortcomings as a girlfriend, she’s personally affronted. “You didn’t think I was feminine?” she yelps. He responds, on beat and in perfect catty pitch: “Neooo!”
This single word of a line is exceptionally welcome. What makes it funny is not the situation or the wit, both decidedly humdrum, but the delivery — by Dwayne Johnson. Indeed, his Agent 23 brings repeated, if brief, moments of relief to the otherwise ponderous proceedings. The character is one of those perfect superstars everyone else can’t help but adore even as they resent him. Dapper and excruciatingly self-confident, he’s CONTROL’s go-to problem-solver. In another movie, he’d have top billing. Here, he’s number three.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First and most obviously, the movie is reprising the Don Adams TV series, starring Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart, which makes everyone else supporting. Second and more interestingly, Entertainment Weekly reports the non-starring role is part of Johnson’s long-term plan. He means to be a movie star and much admired, which begins with being seen by lots and lots of viewers. The surest route to this particular end, according to the Eddie Murphy Measure of Fame, is to make family films. And so Johnson, following detours like Southland Tales, has focused his energies on the kiddies + parents market, beginning with the excruciating Game Plan.
Get Smart, though it lacks a distracting child, is more of the same, lots of grimacing faces and silly hijinks, with one or two references to a world the rest of us might recognize. Lazily structured, it’s a series of gags pretending to be a movie. Partly reverent of the source (remembering the Cone of Silence, digging out dusty catchphrases from “Sorry about that, chief!” to “Would you believe…?”), partly granting Anne Hathaway a full-on adult role, and partly grinding through the motions of a seasonal light entertainment (mixing action, romance, comedy, sentimentality), it ends up nowhere.
The movie begins with a nod to the series’ memorable opening credits, as Max makes his way into headquarters by way of a secret doorway, this one in a museum featuring an old CONTROL exhibit, so the movie can acknowledge right off that the Cold War is over, but also making a case for the continued usefulness of international espionage. In the office, Max is surrounded by colorful supporting players, from the gadget nerds Bruce (Masa Oki) and Lloyd (Nate Torrence) to the bullies Larabee (David Kochner) and 91 (Terry Crews), all setting up his tête-à-tête with the Chief (Alan Arkin, regarding his own status in the agency. Seems that Max is a top-notch chatter-interpreter (somehow he picks up on the global threat posed when “hardened KAOS agents risk the extra carbs” in their morning muffins), and so, although he’s aced a field agent’s exam, he’s got to remain at his desk, keeping the world safe from evildoers.
Once it establishes Max’s disappointment and 23’s panache, the film predictably changes course on this plot point; as Max’s “origin story,” this introduction to a Get Smart franchise has to get him into the field. A KAOS attack on CONTROL’s central office (how well fortified or hidden is this place anyway?) leaves management in a muddle: no known agents can hit the streets, which means 23 stays home and Max leaves for Russia, hot on the trail of Siegfried (Terence Stamp). Partnered with the more experienced (and surprisingly boring) 99, Max is instantly distracted, flirting and competing while they’re looking for clues and battling villains.
So far, so TV. The movie makes rudimentary efforts to update, via passing references to terrorists (“We don’t negotiate with” them), profiling (just because an airline passenger wears a turban doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy, until it does), and inter-agency competition (to squash a fight in the office, 23 says, “We’re not people who jam stables into other people’s heads: that’s CIA stuff”). Perhaps the most notable effort to bring CONTROL and KAOS into the 21st century has to do with Max’s own thinking. Ever an agent who over-thinks (and so, under-reacts), here his initial, chatter-based analysis of the enemy appears naïve: “They are bad guys, but that’s what they do, not who they are.” His fellow agents scoff, until Max uses his surveillance-procured knowledge of one villain’s marriage troubles to bond with him.
That’s not to say touchy-feely compassion and psychological ops are the order of the new day. Get Smart delivers to generic expectations, with a ticking time bomb (endangering a U.S. president [James Caan]), Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” multi-tiered vehicle chases, and nefarious terrorists who deserve all the brutal abuse heaped on them. As on television, Max triumphs by innovation and by accident, endearing precisely because he’s not 23, the super-skilled conventional agent. The problem with this formula, however, is 23. Johnson plays a foil ably, but he’s still more delightful than anyone else on screen. That sounds like a plan.