SPIES LIKE US 30th Anniversary

Chevy Chase famously left SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE after just one season to pursue a movie career. He maintained attachments to many of his fellow “Not Ready For Prime Time Players,” though, sometimes appearing with them in films. The co-star he went on to collaborate with most often was Dan Aykroyd. Both had small roles in the ill-fated CADDYSHACK II, and Chase starred in his pal’s directorial debut, the equally ill-fated (and, some would say, criminally misunderstood) NOTHING BUT TROUBLE. There was even a brief Chevy cameo in Aykroyd’s 1988 comedy THE COUCH TRIP. Their best cinematic team-up, however, remains their first. Released on Dec. 6, 1985, SPIES LIKE US was a hit ($60 million), but not a blockbuster. Reviews were mixed-to-negative. And yet, unlike more than a few pictures the two stars made in that decade, it has stood the test of time. Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, SPIES LIKE US remains a comedy that fans gush about whenever its title is spoken. The rather unlikely manner in which the movie was assembled is no doubt a huge part of the appeal.

Chase and Aykroyd play, respectively, Emmett Fitz-Hume and Austin Milbarge, two hapless individuals duped by the fictional Defense Intelligence Agency (or DIA) into acting as decoys so that no one will realize they’re trying to hijack a Soviet missile launcher. The guys think they’re real-deal spies on a mission of global importance. In reality, they’re being counted on to act incompetently so that the real mission will remain covert. Eventually they get wise to the scheme. The movie ends with them becoming actual heroes by recalling a missile that’s headed right toward the United States.

SPIES LIKE US had all the right pieces in place: a talented comedy director, writers who fundamentally understood how to craft a joke, and two stars who knew one another’s comic rhythms almost as well as they knew their own. Aykroyd penned the original story with former SCTV star Dave Thomas, while the noted writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (SPLASH, NIGHT SHIFT) helped him shape the screenplay into the joke-filled romp it became. Signing on to direct was John Landis, who’d established himself as a maestro of anti-establishment comedy via ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS.

It was a diverse and talented group of people coming together. That, perhaps more than anything, is what makes SPIES LIKE US both notable and enduring, not to mention a little out of the ordinary. The film melds a lot of different comic styles and voices. Chevy Chase specializes in physical humor, such as the famous sequence in which Fitz-Hume fakes a panic attack to disguise the fact that he’s cheating on the Foreign Service exam. A later scene, wherein the pseudo-spies are put inside a G-force simulator and emerge with their faces contorted, is also classic Chase. Aykroyd, meanwhile, is known for a more cerebral, dry style of humor. Jokes about Milbarge’s wonkiness are certainly of his devising, as is the whole concept of decoy spies becoming embroiled in a very real nuclear threat. Because the two stars were experienced working together, they knew how their styles could – and should – mesh. The chemistry between them permeates every frame they share.

Ganz and Mandel, meanwhile, were pure, well-seasoned gag writers who came up through TV sitcoms such as HAPPY DAYS and LAVERNE & SHIRLEY. Sitcoms, of course, typically require several jokes per minute that earn laughs while still advancing the week’s particular story arc. Ganz and Mandel specialized in crafting punchlines with a real zing that felt authentic to the moment. Many of the movie’s note-perfect one-liners undoubtedly sprang from their minds.

And then there was John Landis, who not only wrangled everyone’s individual sensibilities, but also added his own. Landis gives SPIES LIKE US his usual clean, unfussy style, often using the camera as an impartial observer. He doesn’t like to trick up his shots too much. Given the frequent absurdity of the onscreen antics, he doesn’t need to; the straightforward style helps keep everything in balance. Landis also adds a sub-layer of humor. As a treat for film buffs, he casts other directors in supporting roles. Among them: Frank Oz, Terry Gilliam, Ray Harryhausen, Martin Brest, Sam Raimi, and Joel Coen. The movie’s premise involves covert operations, and Landis stages a covert operation of his own.

The magic of SPIES LIKE US lies in the fact that it really shouldn’t work, and yet it does. Most comedies, when they succeed, do so because there’s one primary voice shaping the humor or guiding the comic viewpoint. In this case, that “voice” was actually a blending of multiple voices, each with a distinct tone.

Taking that idea to an even further extreme is the movie’s offbeat story structure. SPIES LIKE US plays very heavily on Reagan-era nuclear fears and Cold War tensions. Its climax involves a potentially real disaster that could start World War III, something that audiences were legitimately afraid of in 1985. (In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Aykroyd said, “One day we got a call from a representative of the United States Department of Defense because their satellite had spotted our rocket and called the Norwegian government. They thought a Soviet rocket had been secretly moved into Norway, so the producers had to clarify that this was a fake. Thus a major international diplomatic incident was averted.”) While the theme is dark and heavy, the movie wraps it inside something completely opposite: an updating of the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road to…” pictures. SPIES intentionally adopts the form of that series, with the characters ambling along on a trek filled with wacky adventures, beautiful women, and an eventual happy ending. Nowhere is the formula nodded to more obviously than in a scene where Bob Hope himself wanders through the frame chasing an errant golf ball.

Because it’s a mish-mash of approaches, some critics and audience members were understandably put off by SPIES LIKE US. However, that exact same quality is what makes others so irresistibly drawn to it. The movie’s comic rhythms are unpredictable, often blindsiding the viewer with a left-field joke, a kooky plot twist, or a weird character moment. This quality sets it apart from many of the other comedies of its day. Toss in a terrific theme song from Paul McCartney and you’ve got one of the most distinct, weirdly funny movies of that decade – one that is still eminently watchable thirty years later.

Now, won’t you gentlemen (and ladies) have a Pepsi?

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan