The high concept of the 1960s sit-com created by Buck Henry and Mel Brooks (in hindsight, a strange collaboration) was not just to spoof the then-current likes of The Man From UNCLE (and, of course, James Bond) but the depiction of the endlessly comical arrogant self-confidence of Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), Agent 86 of CONTROL, whose belief that he is the greatest secret agent in the world is shared by everyone he meets – from his adoring, much more competent sidekick 99 (Barbara Feldon) to an array of fuming baddies – except his boss, the Chief (Ed Platt), the one man who notices that Max is a complete idiot.
It’s a similar, but subtler dynamic to the relationship between Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom in the Inspector Clouseau series – but Adams’ blithe determination to play the spy game and Platt’s boiling frustration with him is uniquely funny. And the slinky Feldon, contorting her neck so as not to seem taller than her co-star, is sweet, sexy and strangely touching in the role (no less true for being retrospectively unthinkable) of the clever woman who has to maintain a man’s sense of self-worth at the expense of her own advancement and, in the first season at least, suffers because he is so self-obsessed he doesn’t even notice her (‘oh, Max’). The show has lingered in pop memory, which mercifully forgets the latter seasons (where Max and 99 married), the spin-off movie The Nude Bomb, the reunion TV movie Get Smart Again and a tiny revival series with Adams, Feldon and Andy Dick. Now, it gets the make-over-as-a-modern-movie-for-current-stars treatment previously demonstrated by Mission: Impossible, Maverick, Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Avengers, I Spy, SWAT, My Favorite Martian, The Fugitive, Sgt Bilko, The Addams Family and many, many others.
The film pays its dues: using the original memorable Irving Szathmary theme (with added techno-burble), a selection of the original props (with a reasonable explanation for the use of shoe phone, a gag item in 1966 superseded by the fact that the show’s first scene – a phone ringing during a concert – isn’t surreal any more), back-reference glimpses (a photo of Michael Dunn, Patrick Warburton cameoing as Hymie the Robot), reprises of catch-phrases (‘sorry about that, Chief’, ‘missed it by that much’) and routines (‘would you believe’), performances that don’t ape but do evoke the original cast (Anne Hathaway does a fair Barbara Feldon purr on ‘oh Max’) and modestly updating some classic business (the cone of silence is now a force-field, but still doesn’t work). In the manner of the Mission: Impossible films, it ups the action quotient considerably, with all manner of chases and explosions and set-pieces not that distinguishable from more serious spy films – one skydiving stunt is not only cribbed wholesale from the opening of Moonraker, one of Roger Moore’s least-admired Bonds, but even casts Richard Kiel lookalike Dalip Singh in an equivalent role.
Steve Carell is a canny successor to Adams, but the script (by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember) inevitably tries to ‘deepen’ the character in a manner that makes Maxwell Smart not only less funny but less distinctive. Here, Smart is an intelligence analyst who has always dreamed of being a field agent like the super-cool Number 23 (Dwayne Johnson) but kept at his desk because his tedious meticulousness is too useful to the Chief (Alan Arkin). When circumstances, which seem at first to borrow from Three Days of the Condor, promote Smart to active heroism, 99 is resentful of the fumbling idiot and takes over an hour of griping and moaning to warm up to him. The trouble is that this turns a classic character into a mere knock-off of Johnny English, since we’ve had a lot of bumblers who get a chance to show they’re really heroes in the history of cinema, up to and including Kung Fu Panda last month. Some elements (the mystery villain, the nuke-the-Prezz plot, trips to post-Soviet Russia, a squirm-under-the-laser-grid heist, Terence Stamp as Siegfried of KAOS) seem to relate to recent, satirisable efforts like the Mission: Impossible films, xXx, Entrapment and the Brosnan Bonds, but are more like copies than outright parodies. It’s a fun, sometimes funny film with likeable players and occasional proper thrills – but, like a few other would-be franchise founders (Iron Man), it feels as if it’ll work better if they get round to a sequel, because with the character arc out of the way, Get Smart 2 can feature Carell as Agent 86 rather than some schlub who is on his way to being him.