Our review of Our Man Flint (Blu-ray), published February 11th, 2013, is also available.
I am walking into a trap. Heading for the Exotica Beauty factory. If lucky, will lead to laboratory. If not, please send flowers.—decrypted message from secret agent Derek Flint
First came Bond. Then came Napoleon Solo, the Man from U.N.C.L.E. Then came Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, the tennis-playing operatives of I Spy. And just when the world thought there was nowhere else to go with the espionage genre, Our Man Flint erupted into a theater near you.
At once a tongue-in-cheek send-up of 007 and his clones and a hip commentary on America's self-image circa 1965, Our Man Flint made an international superhero of perennial second banana James Coburn, whose cinematic career heretofore had largely amounted to eating Steve McQueen's stardust in such films as The Magnificent Seven, Hell Is For Heroes, and The Great Escape.
Facts of the Case
"Flint, the world's in trouble!"
When three mad scientists ("sane…insane…they're brilliant!") develop technology that will allow them to control the weather, the top-secret global spy network Z.O.W.I.E. (Zonal Organization World Intelligence Espionage, for the acronym-challenged in the audience) knows there is only one man who can save the day: Derek Flint (Coburn, he of the prodigious choppers and mellifluous baritone). Like Doc Savage before him and Buckaroo Banzai after, dapper Derek Flint is a man of seemingly inexhaustible skills who knows everything there is to know about everything. He jets off to Moscow in his private Lear to instruct ballet at the Bolshoi. He performs emergency surgery with no implement fancier than a key sterilized over a candle flame. Like a Zen master, he can slow his cardiopulmonary functions to near-death stillness for three hours at a stretch. He writes mathematical progression ciphers in his head. He kills flies with blowdarts. He can identify the origin of a sample of bouillabaisse by the proportion of ingredients used to prepare it. In short, Flint is The Man.
The problem is that The Man doesn't want the job. Flint has a long history of insubordination, particularly when it comes to Z.O.W.I.E. honcho Cramden (Lee J. Cobb, best remembered as one of the 12 Angry Men), and of stubborn independence. Flint is certainly up to the task of defeating the weather wizards—he can do pretty well anything—but he just plain isn't interested. He'd rather live the life of Riley in his high-tech penthouse apartment with his four gorgeous female live-in assistants-slash-concubines who wait on him hand, foot and…well…let's just leave it at hand and foot, shall we?
But the case becomes personal when Gila (former Miss Israel 1961 Gila Golan, stuffing a wild bikini better than the cowgirl garb she dons in the Ray Harryhausen spectacular The Valley of Gwangi), Flint's gorgeous female opposite number-slash-love interest (you're detecting a theme here, are you not?) from the evil world-domination cabal known only as "Galaxy" (and there's always one of these afoot, isn't there?), makes an abortive assassination attempt on our hero. (The bumbling Cramden inadvertently intercepts the curare-loaded dart instead, but thankfully Flint's encyclopedic knowledge of poisons enables him to snatch the spymaster from the jaws of death.) His immaculate tuxedo having narrowly avoided unsightly dart damage, Flint jets into action to foil Gila (no apparent relation to the ugly venomous desert lizard of the same name, except maybe for that whole poison thing), her effete henchman Malcolm Rodney (played by the late Captain Gregg from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), and the superscientific Unholy Trio before they make the planet unsafe for humanity. It gets even more personal when Flint's four gals-Friday-night (did I mention they're gorgeous and female?) are kidnapped by Gila and Rodney for use as bargaining chips to keep the dashing Derek off their trail.
Of course, before Flint can rescue the world (and the girls), he has to dine on bouillabaisse in Marseilles, scope out a cosmetics factory in Rome, and manhandle with his adversary Gila in the manner of supercool superspies everywhere…at least, everywhere in the innocent age of tie-dye, psychedelia, and free love.
Our Man Flint was concocted—no surprise here—as an American answer to the James Bond screen phenomenon of the 1960s. Does it succeed? Mostly yes, in that Coburn masterfully assays a colorful, dashing secret agent character that men want to imitate and with whom women want to be intimate. But also slightly no, in that the movie itself lays the camp on a mite thick to be truly worthy of the character Flint himself or of the filmmakers' lofty triple-digited target.
Caveats aside, Our Man Flint is still oodles of groovy fun, baby. Coburn is an absolute hoot—to his credit, he plays his character as straight as a ruler's edge, which makes the incessant absurdity around him all the more hilarious. This is the part Coburn was born to portray: slick, icy-cool, competent in spades, and unquestionably charismatic. His Flint is tough but not grim, with a lithe, loose-limbed walk that makes the ballet-instructor story seem plausible…at least until we observe his rhythm-deficient ballroom dancing. His fight scenes are choreographed with grace and economy of motion—Flint never moves a molecule more than necessary to get the job done. (In future years, Coburn would study martial arts under Bruce Lee and serve as a pallbearer at Lee's funeral.)
No matter how ridiculous the plot, Coburn never winks at the camera or betrays his character's resolute unflappability. A typical example is a fistfight that takes place in a men's room in a French saloon. Flint's foe, a Galaxy agent named Hans Gruber (apparently no relation to the Alan Rickman character in Die Hard—this Gruber is identified by Flint as an alumnus of the Hitler Youth Movement, who escaped during the Nuremberg trials) falls into a pay toilet stall, the door slamming shut behind him. Without a moment's hesitation, Flint fishes in the pocket of his tuxedo, nonchalantly counts out the change necessary to unlock the door, deposits the coins in the lock, and continues the fight.
Derek Flint satirizes and skewers mid-'60s America with rapier precision. He's filthy rich, hedonistic, an arrogant know-it-all, a rugged individualist ("Flint, you said you were joining the team," says Cramden when Flint refuses to accept assistance; "But the team isn't joining me," replies the superspy), and resourceful to a fault. He's on top of his game and on top of the world, as symbolized by his penthouse digs, complete with onsite courtesans. In short, he's Hugh Hefner with a license to kill—exactly what every American male wanted to be in 1965. Even his employer is a Johnson-era political fantasy: Z.O.W.I.E. is ostensibly a United Nations adjunct with international authority, but it appears to operate at the beck and call of the President of the United States (who repeatedly interrupts the proceedings to issue orders via a red hotline telephone that seems to be everywhere).
It's unfortunate that the script and overall production aren't quite as well conceived as the lead character. Screenwriter Hal Fimberg authored a couple of Abbott and Costello comedies during World War II, but he's hard pressed to come up with consistent wit here. Veteran director Daniel Mann, the man at the helm of such classics as Come Back, Little Sheba, The Rose Tattoo, Butterfield 8, and Teahouse of the August Moon, had to wonder what Hollywood deity he'd transgressed to end up directing this thinly-written comic thriller, but does a workmanlike job bringing the elements together. (Then again, by the 1970s, when Mann was churning out schlock like the rat-bites-human horror flick Willard and the boxing-kangaroo comedy Matilda, Our Man Flint in retrospect must have looked like The Wizard of Oz.) Mann keeps the story—such as it is—moving (though the film sags badly in the middle) and draws capable performances from Coburn and Cobb. Gila Golan, on the other hand, couldn't pour acting out of a bucket with directions on the bottom, and no one else really has all that much to do.
Even with its obvious weaknesses, as a time capsule of Flower Power style Our Man Flint is unmatched. It's a movie where using the word "dated" as a criticism is not only irrelevant, but completely misses the point. This is a film made in a specific moment in history, and it captures that moment with goofy perfection. Yes, the fashions and furniture appear ludicrous—but that was the '60s style. Yes, the special effects, from a modern perspective, are embarrassing (some of the sequences shot in miniature—an avalanche, a dam collapse, an island exploding, a submarine trailing wackily out-of-scale bubbles—are funnier than any of the movie's intentional humor), but that's what filmmakers had to work with in 1965. The loony, antiquated tone of the movie is the bulk of its charm, and is what makes it fun. At least, as much fun as it is.
Hoping to cash in on the latest installment in the Austin Powers franchise, Fox has shown big fat sloppy love to Our Man Flint (and its sequel, In Like Flint). The lush anamorphic transfer is as good as this film has looked in eons, maybe ever. Most of the print flaws have been cleaned up, and the mod color palette presents with vivid sharpness and depth. Some minor instances of source print damage pop up periodically, and I spotted a few places where the brighter colors bleed just a smidgen. But for a film of this age, Fox has done a sterling job with the pictures here.
Not so the audio. The mono soundtrack used here is as screechingly raucous as fingernails on chalkboard, pretty much throughout the movie. Jerry Goldsmith's bouncy, jazzy score sounds as though the tracks were laid on a two-dollar tape recorder. The dialogue is focused and clear, but other than that, this track does not do justice to the video presentation.
Supplements are at a minimum. You'll find the film's theatrical trailer, along with trailers for In Like Flint and two execrable action flicks from the same era: Fathom and Modesty Blaise. Camp lovers and connoisseurs of buxom pulchritude may find these worth a peek. Also, Fox spent an extra few pennies per thousand to package this disc in a Day-Glo red Amaray case. (Say it with me…"far out, man.")
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some things, eerily enough, never change. In the Marseilles pub sequence, Flint empties the joint (there's a bomb hidden in a cold cream jar on one of the tables) by masquerading as a crazed Hindu militant waving a gun.
I'm afraid the Austin Powers crowd will come to this disc expecting an all-out laughfest. They'll be disappointed. Our Man Flint takes a skewed look at the spy genre, but remains more or less faithful to the source material—it's just nudged an inch or two over the top. But those of sufficient age (or anachronistic sensibility) to appreciate the hip, swinging '60s groove and the dynamic, with-it performance by the killer-cool Coburn can bet their bippies on a few worthwhile kicks and giggles.
Our Man Flint is released on his own recognizance. Which is just as well, because he'd only escape anyway. Court is in recess as the Judge withdraws to chambers to review the merits of the follow-up case, entitled In Like Flint.
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