"He's just a small spy with a big ego."
The secret agent spoof 'OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies' was a big hit when it was released in France back in 2006. The film makes its way to North America this year with a limited theatrical release and subsequent DVD. The comedy is very likeable and easily accessible to an international audience, but Americans (myself included) will probably only get about half the jokes. We've simply had no exposure to the history of Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (aka agent OSS 117) to understand why it's funny to see him lampooned. The character is practically an institution in France, having originated in a series of pulp novels by Jean Bruce in 1949. The author penned over ninety OSS 117 stories before his death, whereupon his widow and children took over for almost two hundred more, the last published in 1992. In between were a number of movie adaptations, including a very popular run in the 1960s that piggybacked off the James Bond craze (though the character predates Ian Fleming's creation). For this new film to revive the series in parody form is almost as if Austin Powers had been an official extension of the Bond franchise.
'Nest of Spies' opens with a black & white World War II prologue, where we are introduced to de La Bath and his best friend Jack Jefferson infiltrating Nazi territory to steal important documents. Already, it's clear that our hero is something of a smarmy jackass. The action is capped by a very silly airplane stunt quite obviously shot using a toy model on wires, and it's a riot. The opening credits transition us to popping Technicolor as the main storyline picks up a number of years later. The date is officially 1955, but the fashions, the photography, and the swinging style are all firmly rooted in the early '60s. The Office of Strategic Services assigns agent 117 to investigate the disappearance of his compatriot Jefferson, who had been stationed in Cairo undercover as director of a chicken coop. Strutting into the country with a cocky swagger and absolutely no knowledge of (or concern for) the local culture or customs, de La Bath proceeds to unwittingly insult just about everyone he encounters. Further complicating his mission are dangerous femme fatales, radical Egyptian arms smugglers, a dormant Nazi cell, and 117's own general incompetence.
French comedian Jean Dujardin plays the role as a good-natured idiot, all surface bravado and arrogant bluster. 117 believes himself to be cunning, debonair, and irresistibly charming, and lets everyone know it. He cares more about looking like the perfect spy than actually being one, and spends far too much time posing in dramatic action stances and practicing his requisite bad secret agent puns, all the while overlooking obvious clues right in front of his face. A consummate man's man, he's quite sexist, a little bit racist (not intentionally), and deeply homophobic, but mostly harmless. Women nevertheless throw themselves at him, and he somehow always manages to stumble into the right place at the right time to foil the villains.
Even coming at it with no knowledge of the OSS 117 legacy, the film is a very amusing riff on early James Bond and similar espionage pictures of the era. The director playfully indulges in obvious stock footage, fakey rear projection driving scenes, and some hilarious fight choreography. Dujardin's comedic timing and facial expressions are pitch perfect. The movie pokes fun at the genre with tongue in cheek and eyebrow raised, shooting down spy movie conventions left and right (a running gag about ridiculous code phrases is especially on-the-nose). The tone is more 'Get Smart' (the TV series, not the recent movie remake) than 'Austin Powers', relying on wordplay and character quirks rather than crude bowel humor or over-the-top sight gags. 'Nest of Spies' may not trigger the kind of convulsive laughter that 'Powers' does at its best, but is consistently clever and entertaining. Fans of the type of movies that it parodies will get a kick out of it, whether they've ever heard of the OSS 117 character before or not.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies' is scheduled for an American DVD release later this year by MPI, a studio that has only recently committed to Blu-ray (their first release will be 'Baraka') and hasn't announced any plans for this particular title. However, Gaumont in France issued the film on the High Definition format quite some time ago as a 2-disc set. Disc 1 is a Blu-ray compatible with American BD players. Disc 2 is a PAL format DVD coded for Region 2, and will require a capable region-free DVD player. Both discs have French-language menus that are cleverly designed and should be easy enough for an English-speaking viewer to navigate.
Unfortunately, while the feature film has English subtitles, none of the supplements on either disc offer translation. Also, the subtitles are authored to appear half-in/half-out of the letterboxed movie image, which means that they'll be unreadable on 2.35:1 projection screens.
The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (in the movie's theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio) is a good-looking affair. The image is clean and sharp, without any unwanted edge ringing artifacts. The movie's photography is a deliberate throwback to films of the 1950s and '60s in its color scheme, and each hue is rendered with vibrancy and precision.
Although 'Nest of Spies' was shot on 35mm film, the High-Def transfer has not a trace of grain anywhere. While fine object detail seems to be well represented, the picture does have a rather smooth, sometimes plastic appearance similar to digital photography. It's possible that the film may have been run through Digital Noise Reduction filtering. As I write this, there has been quite a bit of hysteria about DNR in online discussion forums recently, and I don't want to feed into that unnecessarily. If there was filtering of any sort applied here, it may have been done intentionally to give the movie a softer texture and clean-scrubbed appearance, which in this case is not undesirable. 'OSS 117' is still a nice-looking High Definition picture.
Regrettably, at the 65-minute and 70-minute marks on my copy, the video breaks up into terrible pixelation artifacts, like a bad satellite TV feed. Both problem areas are repeatable. I'm not certain whether I just have a defective copy or the errors are an inherent part of the disc encoding. [Update: I've had at least one reader report the same problem on a separate copy.] Fortunately, each instance lasts only a brief second.
The French-language soundtrack is offered in either DTS-HD High Resolution or uncompressed PCM 5.1 versions. The DTS selection is set for a louder default, as is common for the company. Even though the specs would imply that the uncompressed track should be the better option, in direct comparison the lossy DTS track has much better low-end and more pronounced surround activity, even after level-matching the volumes. In fact, bass response is better on the DTS even when the rest of the soundstage is set for an audibly lower volume than the PCM. I expect that this is a case of the two soundtracks being sourced from different masters, rather than anything to do with the technical capabilities of either Blu-ray audio format. Whatever the reason, the DTS is more pleasing and leaves the PCM sounding thin and dull.
The movie's soundtrack is very front-heavy, with limited surround envelopment. Dialogue is crisp, sound effects are clean, and the jazzy score is delivered in warm musical fidelity. This isn't a rollercoaster action movie by any means, but there are a few nicely cracking gunshots, some thumping fireworks, and a couple of explosions. The soundtrack probably won't knock anybody's socks off, but it's a satisfying and professional piece of work.
'OSS 117' was released on DVD in France as either a single-disc or a 2-disc edition. The Blu-ray retains most (but not all) of the bonus features from the "Coffret Collector 2 DVD".
Most of the features are encoded in 1080p24 format and will play without issue in an American Blu-ray player, except for the video introduction to the deleted scenes, which appears to have been shot and encoded in 1080i50 format. In my current Blu-ray player, I couldn't get the video for that segment to work. Instead, the audio portion plays over a black screen.
None of the supplements offer English subtitles or audio.
Prior knowledge of the character or the previous book and movie franchises will not be required to enjoy 'OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies', a very funny secret agent parody from France. The import Blu-ray has nice picture and sound. It's worth a look.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.