This month marks the 20th anniversary of Mike Myers' most celebrated creation: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was released in May 1997 and endures in popular consciousness. Which is quite an achievement. At the time, the spy-movie parody was surely the most exhausted of mini-genres. A couple of years before, Myers' fellow Canadian, the great Leslie Nielsen, had made Spy Hard. A couple of years after, Rowan Atkinson starred in Johnny English (of MI7). Neither left a mark, and why would they? Spoofs of James Bond had sprung up about 30 seconds after 007 hit the screen - Dean Martin as Matt Helm, James Coburn as Derek Flint. The Bond franchise saw them off by artfully serving both the Bond and the Bond-parody markets during the Roger Moore era. Even the contradictions in a clapped-out Sixties swinger still rogering his way across the planet in the allegedly more sensitive Nineties had been directly acknowledged in Pierce Brosnan's 007 debut a year or three before Austin Powers: As Judi Dench's M tells him in Goldeneye, "You're a sexist misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War."
Yet somehow, across this most over-tilled of soil, Austin Powers snuffled out all manner of truffles. For one thing, unlike Spy Hard et al, it had great attention to detail. A Canadian author/star and an American director (Jay Roach) made the most lovingly English film in years - not just an accumulation of all the easy Bond jokes but a valentine to "The Avengers" (Steed and Mrs Peel, not Hulk and Scarlet Witch), "Jason King", Richard Lester's Beatles movies, and Swinging London when it was truly awfully groovy.
It's amazing, when you think about it, that a Hollywood studio can have a big hit in America with a film whose theme song goes:
Make me some tea
Put on the telly
To the BBC
BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC 4...
Etc. Mike Myers and his celebration of shagadelia opened in America the day after Tony Blair and his "Cool Britannia" opened in the old country. Britannia wasn't really cool in May of 1997, although Vanity Fair and the other Blairophile style arbiters would soon start insisting it was. By the standards of today, the UK was much less visible in the broader culture: the new film version of The Saint might as well have been flown in from Planet Zongo for all it had to do with either Leslie Charteris or Roger Moore. Nonetheless, inspired by little more than his English dad's taste in pop culture, Mike Myers offered up an affectionate evocation of a very precise cultural moment, starting from the film's beautifully choreographed opening sequence: Austin Powers, in a crushed-velvet suit, dances down Carnaby Street to Quincy Jones's "Soul Bossa Nova" (an absolutely perfect choice of Sixties instrumental) pursued by gamboling bobbies, beefeaters and hordes of mini-skirted dolly birds, all before jumping (Simon Dee-style) into a Union Jacked E-type driven by his leather-jumpsuited sidekick, Mrs Kensington (Mimi Rogers).
But that was 1967. After three decades in suspended animation, Austin is defrosted by Her Majesty's Government to do battle with his old nemesis, the likewise suddenly de-cryogenized Dr Evil - also played by Myers (though he originally offered the part to Jim Carrey - shudder). Restored to life, Dr Evil is anxious to get back to implementing various ingenious schemes he's been cooking up: for example, he has a plan to destabilize the Royal Family by spreading rumors that the Prince of Wales has committed adultery with a married woman. It's left to Dr Evil's Number Two, a man called "Number Two" (Robert Wagner), to point out that unfortunately quite a lot has happened during the Doctor's spell in the deep-freeze.
Austin, too, is something of an anachronism in the Nineties, and not just because of his Nehru jacket. He believes that birds are there to be shagged senseless, and that all it takes to win over his new assistant Vanessa (Elizabeth Hurley) are a revolving bed and an LP of Burt Bacharach's Greatest Hits. Powers operates in the Nineties in the indestructible belief that everything a chap needs to know he learned in the Sixties. It's a considerable tribute to Myers that he succeeded where generations of Brit comics had failed: he planted the Britannic "shag" in the American vernacular, where hitherto it had meant only an innocuous sock-hop dance. And so for a while moviegoers and zeitgeist-surfers took up Austin's favorite ejaculation - "Shagadelic, baby!" - and, to a lesser degree, such other British locutions as "wedding tackle" and "meat and two veg".
In Austin Powers, Mike Myers, then best known for Wayne's World, concocted a far more sophisticated comic conceit. When he's not a top secret agent, Austin has the coolest day job of the era: like "Tony" Snowdon and the gang, he's a swinging fashion photographer, who, even when he's snapping microfilm copies of the secret documents, involuntarily lapses into, "Ooh, yeah, yeah, yeah, baby, gimme more", etc. Thanks to his tailor, he has the ornate foppish quality of Sixties adventurers like Patrick MacNee and Peter Wyngarde. But he also has the quintessentially British naffness of the period - NHS specs, bad teeth, Union Jack Y-fronts, and a great leering grin that prefaces such can't-fail pitches to the birds as "Do I make you horny, baby?" Flaunting his broadloomed chest rug in the hot tub with the exotic continental seductress Alotta Fagina, he farts and then recites an amusing schoolboy rhyme about it. He is, in that sense, an all too recognizable Englishman, and a more accurate embodiment of the scept'red isle's manhood than, say, Hugh Grant's dangly-haired diffidents in all the Richard Curtis stuff.
That's an ingenious comic concept: all the high style and instrumental groove of a Sixties spy movie, but in lieu of Sean Connery a somewhat more typical Brit.
Austin Powers also makes an interesting contrast with the Naked Gun spoofs. There, the comic energy dribbles away as the plot takes over, till by the end more jokes miss than hit. That doesn't happen here. Indeed, the film has a more sustained sense of place than most real Bond pictures. Part of that's due to Myers' abandon, which extends even to little psychedelic dance sequences that punctuate the drama; some of it's even due to Elizabeth Hurley as his excellent straight man. Their relationship is rather touching, if just a little kinky in that she's the daughter of his former (but now presumably aged) girl sidekick Mrs Kensington. There's a fine scene when Austin takes Vanessa out to dinner on his open-topped London Transport double-decker with the real Burt Bacharach playing cocktail piano as the Vegas skyline rushes past. As Elvis Costello ruefully conceded to me a couple of years later, this scene helped reboot Burt, to the point where Elvis gamely joined him for a number in the Austin Powers sequel. It exemplifies the subtle clever poise of the picture: it sees the comedy in the retro-grooviness, but its genuine love for it shines through. Austin Powers, in this first iteration, is very sincere.
The spy caper proceeds as spy capers do, with scenes that are well-known cultural references two decades on - Dr Evil holding the world to ransom for "One! Million!! Dollars!!!" followed by maniacal chuckle, etc. But Austin comes to realize he's a man out of time, mocked for his fab gear, peace signs and his exclamatory catchphrase "Oh, behave!" He grows moody and introspective, lost in wonder at a video of all that's happened in the decades he was frozen. "I sometimes forget you've missed out on the last thirty years," sympathizes Vanessa. "The fall of the Berlin Wall, the first female British Prime Minister, the end of apartheid..."
"Yeah," he says. "And I can't believe Liberace was gay. I mean, the women loved him, man. I didn't see that one coming."
But Dr Evil too has problems adjusting to the Nineties, bewildered by a world in which Robert Wagner has diversified away from the organization's core business of evildoing into activities such as a small Seattle-based company that specializes in selling coffee at five dollars a cup: "I took this two-bit evil empire and made it into a leading multinational," 'Wagner's Number Two tells Dr Evil. "Don't you understand? There's no world to take over any more. It's all just corporations."
At such moments, the parody seems more real than the original: Austin and Dr Evil, both prone to self-doubt, appear far more rounded than, say, Roger Moore's Bond and Telly Savalas' Blofeld. Yoke the sheer bravura of Myers' toothy ruffle-cuffed hammy dandy to a terrific Sixties soundtrack (including the fabulous "Mas Que Nada" by Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66) and you have a small masterpiece that's an elegy for a lost world.
Then they made the sequels: The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember. But both lacked the oddly tender moments of the original and the chemistry between Myers and Hurley. In their place came fecal gags with characters called "Fat Bastard" that moved the franchise deeper into the territory of gross-out comedy, and then, in the final outing, grimly cozy cameos by Steven Spielberg, Britney Spears and John Travolta. In fairness, the villain in Goldmember looks and dresses like Jimmy Savile, which seems oddly prescient.
A series about a Sixties swinger in the touchier Nineties is probably impossible to make in the near-totalitarian Teens: one thinks of the scene where Powers' boss (the excellent Michael York) introduces him to his mother only to have Austin scoff "That's a man, baby!" and try to rip her wig off. Would such a potentially trans-gressive jest get past a first draft in today's Hollywood?
Oh, well. In a world of ever fewer jokes, we should be grateful that there's still one identity group you can stereotype to your heart's content. Meeting Powers in the men's room of a Vegas casino, Tom Arnold surveys the DeLorean collar and flapping cuffs, and asks: "Are you with the show?"
"No, actually," says Austin. "I'm English."
~This is our first Mark at the Movies since we invited readers to become Founding Members of The Mark Steyn Club a few days ago. Founder Membership isn't for everybody, but one thing it does give you is access to our comments section. So, if you're a Club member and you take issue with Steyn or Mike Myers or Elizabeth Hurley, then feel free to comment away below. (Mark even weighs in himself occasionally, as you can see in his reply to Ken Costa here.)