Thursday, March 23, 2017

South American Way, Part IV

Film: That Man from Rio (L’homme de Rio)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve been dodging a specific bullet for some time, but today my wife informed me that I’m running out of time. We're due for an upgrade on our DVR, and the one we have is so old that there’s no way to get the saved programs from it to a new one and no way to access our DVR from a computer or other device. What this means is that I have a couple of weeks at best to watch the things I’ve saved that I can’t get via other means. It’s not a massive problem, but it does put a rush on watching the half dozen or so that I have saved. I had plans to watch something different today, but necessity dictates burning through some otherwise unavailable films. The most recent of these recordings was That Man from Rio (or L’homme de Rio in its original French).

That Man from Rio is almost a precursor to the Austin Powers series, perhaps much more closely akin to Matt Helm or Derek Flint. The difference is that in all of these cases, the heroes are actual spies. In this case, our spy-like hero is actually a French airman named Adrien Dufourquet (Jean-Paul Belmondo) on an 8-day pass returning to Paris. He’s there to see his girlfriend Agnes Villermosa (Francoise Dorleac). Since this is going to be an espionage spoof, though, things aren’t going to be that simple.

A recent break-in at a museum results in one dead guard and a missing Amazonian statue. Soon the museum’s curator, Professor Catalan (Jean Servais), is kidnapped. Shortly thereafter, Agnes is kidnapped as well. It seems that three men, including Catalan and Agnes’s late father, found a trio of statues on an expedition. Agnes’s father was killed for his statue and now Catalan and his statue are missing. However, Agnes’s father’s statue wasn’t in Paris; he buried it somewhere in Rio, and only Agnes knows where it is. Adrien manages to sneak aboard the flight taking Agnes to Rio, and he avoids the authorities when they land, hoping desperately to find Agnes and get back home to Paris before his leave is over and he is considered AWOL.

What follows, then is an adventure that seems like at least part of it served as a template for those of both Indiana Jones and John McClane. Adrien is a bumbling hero, except that he’s also supremely competent when he needs to be. We’ve got stolen cars and motorcycles, bad guys armed with pistols that shoot curare darts, helicopters, chases, crosses and double crosses, and pretty much everything you’d want in something that is part espionage/crime cape and part parody of the same. Like Indiana Jones, we’re dealing with ancient treasures. There’s even a kid sidekick in the form of Sir Winston (Ubiracy De Oliveira), a Rio bootblack (who is both humble and lovable). Like McClane, Adrien gets caught up in circumstances beyond his control.

Make no mistake about this—evidently this is a film that Steven Spielberg liked a lot, since he claimed that he’d seen it nine times. In addition to some Raiders of the Lost Ark, there’s some evident influence on The Goonies, too. I can see some Romancing the Stone here as well, although that’s not connected to Spielberg. There are a lot of things that make That Man from Rio work as well as it does. The first and most important is that it does something very few parodies made today actually do well. If all of the spoofing and goofiness and comedy are removed, this works perfectly as a series crime caper. It’s the sort of thing that Edgar Wright has made his career on--Hot Fuzz works as a buddy cop movie just as it does a comedy based on the same, for instance. That Man from Rio is smart enough that it’s a good caper on top of being a very clever satire. It’s clear that the screenwriters are fans of the genre, since something couldn’t be done this well without a genuine love for the style.

There are some aspects that are so neatly parodied that it’s impossible to tell these are deliberate mistakes or done intentionally. Multiple times, Adrien dives into the water only to be perfectly dry moments later. Further on in the movie, Adrien undergoes an intense physical chase and, in an opposite effect, ends up with his clothing inexplicably shredded. He has garbage dumped on him at one point, and it’s gone in the following shot. I can only assume that this is intentional.

The second major plus here is the presence of Jean-Paul Belmondo, who is believably inept and competent at the same time, someone who manages to get through a number of terrible scrapes by luck and occasional skill. Belmondo’s Adrien has a lot of John McClane in him, but he’s also got a lot of Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot. It helps tremendously that evidently Belmondo did a lot of his own stunts. It adds a certain level of authenticity to everything that happens, even the crazy stuff, no matter how improbable.

If there’s a weak point, it’s the character of Agnes, who is flighty beyond all bounds of reason. I realize that this is very much a spoof, but Agnes is the sort of unreasonable character who demands that everything be exactly the way she wants it and sees any deviation from that as being evidence that she is unloved. Near the end of the film, when Adrien is attempting to rescue her once again, her only concern is for an admission of love from him. This is a guy who has risked his career for her, is potentially going to spend years in a military prison for desertion, and who has risked death multiple times to try to keep her safe…and she can’t even assist in her own rescue. I know that’s supposed to be comic relief, but it comes across as demeaning. This isn’t a knock on Francoise Dorleac, just on the character she’s playing.

Beyond that, though, there’s a hell of a lot to like here. That Man from Rio is filled with action, has a lot of good laughs, and even serves as something of a travelogue, taking us from Paris to Rio to Brasilia to a tributary of the Amazon. I have a hard time thinking that anyone who loves the spy/thriller/action genre won’t have fun watching it.

Why to watch That Man from Rio: This is how you do a spoof.
Why not to watch: As a character, Agnes is truly infuriating.

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