Egypt in 1955 is the deadpan setting for “OSS 117: Cairo — Nest of Spies,” a spy spoof that — rarity of rarities — reps a remake actually worth making. Current comic fave Jean Dujardin plays title character OSS 117 as a kind of James Bond crossed with Maxwell Smart. Sparkling production design, a jubilantly retro score and a genuine flair for using the film and TV vocabulary of the ’60s to revisit colonial arrogance put pic in the same conceptual ballpark as Austin Powers or “The Naked Gun” series. Local success looks a shoo-in.
Author Jean Bruce’s character OSS 117 (real name: Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath) first saw print in 1949, four years before Bond, and eventually figured in 265 novels. The French secret agent appeared in seven movies between 1956 and 1970, incarnated by a variety of actors including Ivan Desny, Kerwin Mathews and Frederick Stafford.
Pre-credits seg in 1945 Berlin shows OSS 117 outsmarting the Nazis, rescuing documents crucial to the Allies and taking a propeller plane out of a nosedive without breaking a sweat or forgetting to make a lame pun or two.
Ten years later, in Rome, OSS 117 appears to have a way with exotic foreign beauties, but may be just as enamored of his tux. Pic’s delectable tone of straight-faced parody — a calculated departure from the original novels’ straightforward seriousness — never falters.
After a fellow agent, Jack Jefferson (Philippe Lefebvre), is murdered, Hubert is ordered to take his place at the head of a poultry firm in Cairo. This is to be his cover while he investigates Jack’s death, monitors the Suez Canal, checks up on the Brits and Soviets, burnishes France’s reputation, quells a fundamentalist rebellion and brokers peace in the Middle East.
“No problem,” replies Hubert, whose suave self-importance is topped only by his phenomenal ignorance and dumb luck.
Deplaning at Cairo airport with a bevy of stewardesses hanging on his every utterance, Hubert is met by fetching and brainy secretary Larmina El Akmar Betouche (Berenice Bejo). During a suitably rear-projection drive into town, Hubert marvels at how much sand there is in Egypt and pooh-poohs Larmina’s assertion that “millions of people” speak Arabic.
What’s fun about the reinvented character is his arrogance. If Hubert hasn’t heard of something — like Islam, or the early-morning call to prayer — he dismisses it as some silly notion that’ll never catch on. “You’re so, so French!” exclaims the exasperated Larmina.
Hubert’s condescension toward the locals, his assumption that he’s irresistible to women and his abject lack of intuition make him a well-groomed accident waiting to happen. However, to its credit, narrative is not merely an excuse for set pieces and gags. From its re-visiting of ’60s-style hand-to-hand combat to the double cross-festooned finale, screenplay pays off in the manner of all self-respecting thrillers in which the bad guys appear to triumph.
Dujardin, a versatile thesp who made his breakthrough as Brice in comedy “Brice de Nice,” is enormously entertaining, and could carry a franchise if this pic clicks. Bejo is terrific as his curvaceous and long-suffering assistant.
Score is a consistent delight, and a Houdini-esque underwater escape is lensed with panache.