Originally Reviewed – 3/10/2012
Growing up in high school, circa 1997, Austin Powers was the bees knees. You couldn’t pop your head into a homeroom or hang out at a lunch table without somebody doing an impersonation of the rotten toothed super spy. Teachers were annoyed by it and our parents thought it was crass, but to a generation that had nothing but things to look forward to, it was a scream. Now, in viewing this film fifteen years later, some of the shine has worn off. The jokes are dated, the laughs less hearty and I no longer have the urge to yell, “Yeah Baby, YEEEAAH” whenever somebody asks me what time it is. At the core, the first film in the Austin Powers trilogy is a very entertaining diversion, bolstered by strong characters, simple storytelling and a funnier than it should be script. Just don’t expect the cult classic from over a decade ago.
Canadian SNL alumnus Mike Meyers stars as both Austin Powers, a swinging spy from the 1960’s and Dr. Evil, a generic mad scientist bent on world domination. Cryogenically frozen in 1967, Austin is thawed out thirty years later to help rid the world of his nemesis, who escaped capture in a space probe shaped like a Big Boy. The rest of the film is standard sixties era spy movie fare, all for good reason. The film relishes in clichés such as “the slow, yet easily escapable trap” and “the overblown plot to rule the world”. The script takes great pains to show exactly how ridiculous these scenarios are, making the audience well aware of the in joke, even if they’ve never seen You Only Live Twice.
In both lead roles, Meyers is manic yet endearing, and much of the film’s sustainability stems from the fine development of the characters. Both Austin and Dr. Evil are having a hard time adapting to the 90’s and it’s this bumbling vulnerability that helps us like the characters beyond the one liners. That’s not to say there aren’t good good gags in the script as well. Watching Austin gyrate on a rotating bed or seeing Dr. Evil struggle with exactly how much to set the world’s ransom at, still hold up for a few laughs. That said, the film didn’t age particularly well. Although the original doesn’t rely as much on topical humor as the sequels do, moments like Austin accessing an AOL account or Dr. Evil doing the Macarena just don’t work anymore. They just make you cringe.
The rest of the cast is works quite well for the limited time they have on screen. Elizabeth Hurley as Dr. Kensington, Austin’s nineties era partner and eventual love interest, is bookish yet charming. Initially repulsed by Austin’s swinger behavior, she soon sees beyond the atrocious teeth to the man within, nicely arcing as the story goes on. Other standouts include Michael York as Basil Expedition, head of the Ministry of Defense and the always reliable Robert Wagner as Evil’s number two man, Number Two. Write your own joke. The film is also helped by some good comedic directing by Jay Roach in his first ever feature. Comedy is a tough nut to crack for a director and while I’m sure Myers had more than a little say in the direction of the film, Roach does a fine job keeping the timing fresh and funny.
To say the Austin Powers series of films isn’t exactly landmark cinema would be an understatement. The movies are silly, crude and overly dependent on period era references to keep the funny going. Still, at least in the case of the original, there’s enough in the way of good writing and strong characters to keep this ship sailing, even if the course charted is one you’ve been down numerous times before. A worthwhile viewing, even to just reminisce about a time when the budget was balanced, people had jobs and we weren’t at war, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is a light hearted farce that gets most of the comedy right even when it’s doing an outdated dance from the band Los del Rio. Just make sure we don’t catch you doing the, “Yeah Baby, YEEEAHH” line out in public anymore. No matter how funny something was fifteen years ago, in certain cases, you can never go back.
Score – 70%