When translating a property from one medium to another care is hopefully taken to preserve the spirit of the original while making necessary tweaks to better suit it to the new venue it will be appearing in. An interesting case study would be the film Get Smart, an adaptation of the classic 1960s spy spoof comedy series starring Don Adams. Very much a product of its time, the original series was born out of the Sean Connery-fueled mania for James Bond and the host of superspy imitations.
However the intervening four decades have seen substantial changes. Spy films have undergone an invigorating reinvention thanks to the Bourne trilogy and the James Bond franchise’s reboot that was started with 2006’s Casino Royale. The Cold War is over, the Soviet menace replaced by another global villain. Genre spoofs have degenerated from such smart works like Airplane! to the witless level of Meet The Spartans. Cellular technology has rendered the original show’s classic shoe-phone obsolete. This has allowed Get Smart to be reinvented as an amiable, if not totally successful, action-comedy film rather than a straight genre spoof.
Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) is the top intelligence analyst for the super secret spy organization CONTROL. He finally gets his wish to escape his desk job to become a field agent when a mole exposes the identities of CONTROL’s agents. Paired with the legendary Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), Max must race to uncover a plot to assassinate the President of the United States, hilariously underplayed by James Caan, masterminded by Siegfried (Terence Stamp) of the terrorist group KAOS.
As expected, the film does make several overt and subtle nods to the original television series. CONTROL was publically shut down at the end of the Cold War, though it continued to operate in secret. A Smithsonian Museum display contains a few familiar artifacts of CONTROL’s heyday. Other winks and nods are scattered through the film, but I’ll leave them to be revealed on their own.
Fans of the original series may take some exception to the way the movie presents Max. Don Adam’s interpretation was of a clueless secret agent who bumbled through his missions on nothing more than bravado and luck. Carell’s Max is entirely competent just inexperienced. But both approaches are just two different routes to the comedic hero. Carell has the thankless job of stepping into Adams’ phone shoes, but manages to put his own spin on the character, recalling Adams’ iconic work with out ever appearing to be a direct imitation of it.
But where the film truly departs from the series is its ratio of comedy to action. Blessed with the deep pockets of a summer blockbuster budget, this new version of Get Smart definitely features bigger and more exciting set pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in a more serious genre picture. Here, though, the rough and tumble is accented with comedic grace notes. These aren’t the typical machismo one-liners to be found in other action films, but punchlines where the action is the setup.
On the comedy side of things, it is unfortunate that many of the jokes land with the subtly of sloppily written sitcom material. At least two jokes have already been seen this summer in different variations in Harold And Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay and You Don’t Mess With The Zohan. What jokes do score, do so due more to that work of Carell and Hathaway than anything else. Storywise, KAOS’s plan to kill the President is riddled with logic holes dictated by the need for an exciting climax to the film, while the identity of the mole in CONTROL is not hard to figure out. These don’t detract too much from the overall film though.
Reservations about the script aside, the cast throws themselves into the movie with much gusto. Carell and Hathaway share an easygoing chemistry and the script finds an inventive way to deal with the age difference between the two leads that also manages to become a plot point later in the film. Equally as fun to watch is Alan Arkin as the Chief of CONTROL. The film gives him much more to do than just be a desk bound bureaucrat and he looks as if he is having a great time with his role. Stamp also appears to be having fun in his role as the evil Siegfried. Constantly exasperated by the incompetence of his henchmen, he manages to be both evil and comical without ever becoming cartoony. Fans of his supervillain role in Superman II (1980) may experience some déjà vu with his interaction with his one hulking lackey.