OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

The plot alone would be enough to hook me (a poultry farm?) but the outstanding performance by Jean Dujardin as Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath is what really keeps the movie moving forward.

Anyone who has known me for any length of time is aware that I am a huge fan of spy movies.  Not just the James Bond franchise, either, though I revere those films as much as anyone else.  I am a huge fan of the Flint series starring James Coburn, the Matt Helm stuff with Dean Martin, Fathom with Raquel Welch, Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther – pretty much any of the kitschy 60’s spy spoofs as well as the traditional Eric Ambler “A Coffin for Dimitrios”-type spy sagas.  As with the brilliant television series Archer, sometimes I get behind on stuff and those items that should have been viewed ages ago sometimes take a little getting around to.  Good old pal Mexomorph heard about the OSS 117 films over a year ago and we spent a little time acquiring them only to let them languish on the shelf until last night when I felt like watching a spy flick.  Once again a tragic mistake.  The absolute brilliance of Cairo, Nest of Spies made me instantly regret not getting to this gem of cinema earlier and this article is an attempt to make sure none of our readers make the same mistake I did by not viewing this movie immediately.

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is based on a series of novels by Jean Bruce and is a masterful send-up of spy films of the 1950s and 1960s.  The story centers around Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath aka OSS 117, France’s top secret agent.  When good friend, fellow spy and possible sexual paramour Jack Jefferson goes missing in Cairo, OSS 117 must go undercover in Egypt as his business partner in a poultry farm in order to discover his whereabouts, stop an armed rebellion, track down a missing Soviet ship full of weapons and fight off the Nazi menace.  The story is set in 1955 and feels very much like any spy film from that era, which is an amazing achievement for a film made in 2006.  The settings feel so real because it was filmed on location in Casablanca, Morocco and many of the locals were drafted into service on the film.

The plot alone would be enough to hook me (a poultry farm?) but the outstanding performance by Jean Dujardin as  Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath is what really keeps the movie moving forward.  His look is inspired by Sean Connery’s James Bond: tall, dashing, “loves to fight”; his presentation is totally Derek Flint: super cool, draws female attention wherever he goes, looks great in a suit; and his intelligence level is totally Sterling Archer: misogynistic, ethnocentric (borderline racist), unintelligent (“clumsy”), lucky and simply the best secret agent France has.  He doesn’t care that he’s in Egypt, running down the country and it’s people to everyone from fellow agents to the Egyptian Minister; he’s obsessed with his poultry reacting to light changes; he beats the hell out of a muezzin so he can sleep later; he never has any clear idea of what actually is happening on his mission; he’s often too tired to romance the legions of ladies who desire him, never says anything tactful in any situation and lucks out whenever he’s in trouble.  The film is filled with double-crosses, triple-crosses, torture, chicken fights, being tied up and fitted for cement shoes, fights in massage parlors, discovering Nazis in the Great Pyramid, stuff exploding and some of the funniest dialogue ever committed to film.

The situations OSS117 finds himself in that also contribute to the comedy.  At the beginning, he has La Princess Al Tarouk (the extremely lovely Aure Atika) tied to his bed and she desperately wants him to make love to her to which he replies “not now.  I’m not in the mood.”  He at one point has his partner, Laramina (the equally lovely Berenice Bejo) sleeping on his bed and instead of romancing he picks her sleeping form up and deposits it on an uncomfortable couch so he can hog the bed.  She even brigs him breakfast the next morning!  Later, after a clothes-ripping finale between his partner, Laramina  and the Princess, OSS 117 finally gets to romance Laramina, whom he’d been after the whole film, but is more interested in the massive explosion he sets off rather than her overwhelming desire.  He and Laramina at one point are trying to get an Imam to spill some secrets in a popular nightclub and OSS 117 is having so much fun playing mandolin as his cover he completely misses the Imam and Laramina leaving the club.  He even sneaks into an anti-Western meeting of Arab fanatics who are all calling for his head but because he speaks no Arabic he has no clue they’re talking about him so he continues to shout along and support their decisions aloud, much to his later dismay.  There are so many clever instances in this film (besides the poultry-house rumble) that illustrate OSS 117’s fundamental lack of understanding, his tremendous spy ability and the wonderfully effective use of dialogue that make this a very hard movie to write about because it all ties together in a wonderful cornucopia of zany spy madness.

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is a magnificent foray into the spy-spoof genre and a magnificent comedy that everyone should check out.  Chock full of hot women, dirty spies, twists, turns, double-crosses and flat out comedy, it contains everything you could want out of a movie… and is French to boot!  I cannot say enough good things about this quality film and urge you to seek it out whenever you can.

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