Stockwell review: TV-inspired spy films ratchet up laughs

Eighteenth century English author Thomas Fuller, known to drop a few quips now and then, is credited with citing the observation: “March comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb.”

The idea that we are in winter at the start of the month and end up in spring by the end is certainly a refreshing thought. The more creative among us could pretend March is a double agent.

And we all know what kind of shoes spies wear, yes?


OK, that might have been a roundabout way to get to this week’s movie choices, which are a couple of appealing comedy spy films. It is always a good idea to watch them while lying in bed, that way you are “undercover.”

“Get Smart” (2008)

Director Peter Segal brings to life one of the more popular TV shows of the late Sixties with his action/spy/comedy starring funnyman Steve Carell.

As a top analyst for a super-secret American government agency, CONTROL, Max (Carell) dreams of being a field agent. He scores very high on the written test, but his physical skills have “always been an issue,” and he’s originally denied promotion despite his exceptional, detailed reports. But after an internal issue threatens the U.S., he must go into the field to stop KAOS, the arch-enemy terrorist organization.

Sure, it is the old-fashioned, tried-and-true trope of almost every spy film ever made, but make no mistake, this one is designed to be funny. The TV series was developed by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, and film screenwriters Tom Astle and Matt Ember capture the essence of the show with a wonderful mixture of comedy, action and allusion.

Carell is perfectly cast as Agent 86, made popular by the late Don Adams. He plays the role straight, deadpanning his lines to make the jokes roll with effortless charm. He is funny as always, but doesn’t lean on other characters to do it. This is a great, standalone performance showing his versatility as a comic.

Speaking of versatility, the rest of the cast is spot-on as well. Agent 99, supposed to be the beauty and brains of the agency, is Anne Hathaway. She flashes her large doe-like eyes during the meet-cute before we know who she is, then turns into the remarkable field agent that her reputation suggests. Hathaway dances between a veteran and a burned-out soul with grittiness. She does not have an abundance of jokes, but the occasional one-liners are hysterical.

Rounding out the cast are Oscar winner Alan Arkin as Chief, Terence Stamp as Siegfried, and Dwayne Johnson as Agent 23. Each do an excellent job with their parts, mixing comedy and action for an enjoyable 110 minutes. Some of the side characters are downright funny, too: Nate Torrence, Masi Oka, Terry Crews, David Koechner, and James Caan as the president. Look out for some awesome cameos from a couple great comedians; and the references to the cold war are done with humorous flavor.

Prime has the PG-13-rated film for $3.99, and it can be enjoyed by just about everyone in the household with a double-digit age. There are a handful of innuendos and some comedic violence, but, otherwise, it’s a great movie night choice.

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” (2015)

In staying with the spy theme, Guy Ritchie adapts a different 1960s TV series into his version of an international espionage action thriller.

CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) “rescues” Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin by avoiding the KGB human bulldozer Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) in the process. As it turns out, a Nazi nuclear threat causes a joint operation between the CIA and the KGB, placing the two in an unwelcome spy alliance. Teller is involved due to a connection with the kidnapped researcher who is ordered to work with the Nazi group.

While “Get Smart” is a comedy-based spy story, “Man” is a spy story with comedy in it. The humor is in the interactions between the characters, and in the verbal barbs thrown across the screen. Cavill, whom most women would describe as “delicious,” is beyond funny without trying to be. He delivers his lines with a boy-next-door charm but with comedic timing comparable to the great ones. His facial expressions are unassuming, and his screen presence is magnetic. He is beautiful to look at and fun to watch in a role that fits him like the tailored suits he wears.

Not to be outdone, Vikander is tough, smart and, yes, deeply sexy, too. She gives off the vibes of a woman not to be messed with and doesn’t put up with anything her two male leads dish out. Her character arcs remarkably well with some great moments toward the climax of the film, and she is not just a pretty face (though that is unmistakable); her presence is vital to the story.

Hammer does a wonderful job, playing a reluctant partner to Solo. During one operation, he is teamed up with Teller, which unfolds into funny banter. The wrestling scene is worth every second, as Ritchie paces it with comedy and sexual tension, letting the two talented actors have a little fun with it.

Elizabeth Debicki and Hugh Grant support with their usual high-level performances. Debicki gives off the scorpion feel, a gorgeous temptress who can kill with the snap of her fingers. Grant is reliable as always, his Alexander Waverly is a vital cog in the wheel, and he pulls off the bumbling fellow with grace and elegance, flipping the switch toward the end of the film.

Overall, Ritchie’s film is fun and exciting with his typical flair. The action sequences are highly stylized, and the dialogue is smartly written. The PG-13 rating is accurate (most young viewers won’t be interested anyway) as there are a couple scenes for mature audiences. The 116 minutes are a great way to spend an evening. Prime has it for $3.99.

The two double-agent films could be enjoyed on a Tuesday or a two-day weekend. Perhaps next week we’ll add another two to the list, as Eddie Murphy looks to do a great role a second time. Too-da-loo!

• Jim Stockwell is a tenured instructor of film and broadcast journalism at McHenry County College, teaching Introduction to Film, Advanced Film and Introduction to Public Speaking.