In 1970 Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould made movie history with their portrayals of Hawkeye and Trapper John, two young wisecracking surgeons working at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. The success of M*A*S*H (1970) catapulted Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould into superstardom and audiences wanted to see them appear in more films together.
In 1974 the actors got an opportunity to team-up again in Irvin Kershner’s unusual comedy S*P*Y*S, which was released on DVD for the first time last year. This uneven spy spoof was panned by critics when it was originally released and it’s not hard to see why the movie has received a lot of negative press over the year, but I still think S*P*Y*S has a few things to offer potential viewers who are looking for some laughs.
Much like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, Irvin Kershner’s film is undeniably a product of its time and the radical politics of the era play a large part in the movie’s portrayal of government figures and the shady world of international espionage. S*P*Y*S is nowhere near as smart or well-written as Altman’s critically acclaimed M*A*S*H, but not all of the jokes in S*P*Y*S fall flat and some of the action filled comedy sequences are well executed. The film was also shot on location in France, which lends the movie a nice atmosphere. If potential viewers expect S*P*Y*S to be another M*A*S*H, they’re bound to be disappointed. On the other hand, if you watch the film with no expectations you might just enjoy yourself. S*P*Y*S is a quirky unconventional spy spoof that has limited appeal, but a lot of ’70s style charm.
Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould have a natural chemistry together on screen and it’s fun to watch them bounce jokes off one another even when those jokes are missing their intended marks. In S*P*Y*S the two actors play CIA agents Griff (Elliott Gould) and Bruland (Donald Sutherland), who find themselves caught up in a cold war cat and mouse game with Russian agents. Gould and Sutherland were both iconic counterculture figures in the seventies and their shared easygoing humor is undeniably appealing here. Both actors work extremely well together and they’re able to inject some life into the film’s lackluster script.
Top: Elliot Gould & Donald Sutherland in S*P*Y*S (1974)
Bottom: Zouzou in S*P*Y*S (1974)
The movie also stars the beautiful French pop icon and yé-yé star Zouzou (aka Danièle Ciarlet) as a radical anarchist called Sybil. Her appearance in the film is unfortunately much too brief and she doesn’t get the opportunity to sing any songs, but Zouzou is terrific whenever she is on screen and it’s hard to keep your eyes off her. The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable, but the french actors Xavier Gélin and Pierre Oudrey are memorable as Sybil’s revolutionary minded companions.
This cold war comedy definitely owes a tip of the hat to Kershner’s previous film Up the Sandbox (1972), which starred Elliot Gould’s ex-wife Barbara Streisand. Both films took jabs at the government fueled fears of average Americans toward radical political groups at the time and used comedy as a force to explore pertinent social concerns. Up the Sandbox is a better and more fully realized film than S*P*Y*S, but both movies would make an interesting double feature thanks to their subject matter and stars.
Director Irvin Kershner has had a decidedly mixed carer behind the camera with a few worthwhile hits and many misses. After making S*P*Y*S he directed some critically acclaimed films such as the fascinating Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and the popular Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Ironically Kershner would also go on to make the James Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983) which marked his only return to the spy genre.
The 20th Century Fox DVD release of S*P*Y*S comes with some nice extras, including an interesting 20 minute featurette called Inside S*P*Y*S, which contains interviews with the director Irvin Kershner and the film’s star Elliott Gould. Both men express their disappointment with the movie, but the “making of” stories they share with viewers are really interesting and informative. The disc also contains a government documentary directed by Irvin Kershner called The Road of a Hundred Days and an original trailer for the film.
– A edited version of this review originally appeared in Cinedelica 04.26.2007