WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: Defeated by British secret agent Austin Powers in the 60s, megalomaniac Dr Evil freezes himself with the intent of causing havoc in the future, forcing Powers to follow suit. But when Austin thaws out in the 90s and is paired up with his previous partner’s lovely daughter, he finds that sexual politics have moved on somewhat from his free-loving heyday.
It may seem like a sure-fire hit with hindsight but back in 1997, with Pierce Brosnan’s GoldenEye temporarily making 007 cool again and Mike Myers struggling to expand his range beyond Wayne’s World, a broad spoof of vintage Bond seemed like an unpromising prospect. However, something about his new creation caught the public imagination and the rest is history, or more accurately history plus some now over-familiar catchphrases and an easy fancy dress outfit.
Austin Powers (Myers) is the man-about-London-Town par excellence in the swinging sixties, a spy-cum-fashion photographer much loved by the ladies despite (or perhaps because of) his crooked, dirty teeth, horn-rimmed glasses and sexist patter – ‘Do I make you horny, baby?’ being one of his favourite lines. However, he and partner Mrs Kensington (Mimi Rogers), the one woman he hasn’t charmed into bed, have work to do when Austin’s nemesis Dr Evil (Myers again) attempts to bump the spy off at a swinging nightspot. Evil is foiled but escapes into a cryogenic pod and blasts off in a Big Boy, defrosting thirty years later to hold the world ransom with a stolen nuclear warhead and a waiting team of cohorts including Frau Farbissina (Mindy Sterling) and Number 2 (Robert Wagner); to his surprise, Dr Evil also has a sulky adolescent son named Scott (Seth Green) with an attitude and perfectly understandable abandonment issues. Who will thwart their evil scheme? Luckily for the world, Austin has volunteered to be frozen too and is re-activated by his boss Basil Exposition (Michael York). After a nice long wee, he’s sent on Dr Evil’s trail, armed with a Ms Kensington, Mrs K’s daughter Vanessa (Elizabeth Hurley) who acclimatises Austin to the 90s as they head for Las Vegas. Vanessa shuns Austin’s initial invitations to ‘shag’ but as his mojo starts to do its thing the pair become closer, at least until he does his duty in the course of pumping people for information (apologies); despite the tension between them, Vanessa and Austin track down Evil’s lair and the battle begins to prevent the launch of a drill that will detonate the missile in the Earth’s core and drown the world in magma.
It’s often true that evil characters in movies are more interesting than their heroic counterparts, and this is literally the case here. Though he’s not the title character, Myers’ Dr Evil is much more the star of the film than the British spy, getting as he does a better set of cronies (Wagner is an inspired choice as Number 2) and better lines (‘…an evil petting zoo?’), including a brilliantly absurd autobiography. Though he is physically a nod to Donald Pleasence’s turn as Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, Evil’s idiosyncrasies are purely Myers’ creation – of course, it helps that he has people such as Wagner, Sterling and Seth Green to play against (as opposed to the sequels, where Myers plays against himself in an effort to hog the laughs). By contrast, Powers is a bit of a one-note character, banging on (apologies again) about his horniness to Vanessa in a relationship that fails to grow naturally – I’m not going to blame Hurley for this, as she isn’t terrible, but neither does she put much zip into her lines.
Aside from the genius of Dr Evil, then, the film is a hit-and-miss barrage of Bond references and scatological and sexual jokes (is nearly seeing a penis funny? You decide), and watching the film a couple of times reveals that some of the gags make it into the film because there’s not enough of a plot to riff on. For example, whilst I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the domestic lives of the henchmen’s families, placing Austin and Vanessa in an ‘easily-escapable’ situation was such an easy joke that any half-awake film fan has surely made it a dozen times already (though that didn’t stop the real Bond villain from walking away from two such situations in the same year’s Tomorrow Never Dies). Perhaps it’s an indication of a restricted budget, but more extensive globetrotting would have fleshed out the parody to a fuller extent and provided greater scope for comic material.
As it is, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is a decent lampoon of 60s and 70s Bond with one great idea in Dr Evil and others that may or may not be to your taste. Though it’s patchy, it laid all the necessary groundwork for the hugely successful Spy Who Shagged Me and contains none of the self-congratulatory indulgence of the second sequel, Goldmember. Austin himself may not be all that groovy, but unless you’re very easily offended it’s actually quite hard not to dig his scene.