Over the years, I have become a big fan of the now-defunct television show "Mystery Science Theater 3000". For those of you unaware, the basic premise of this series was the showcasing and ridicule of really bad movies. The love of this show led me to become a regular visitor to the hilarious and numerous bad movie review sites on the web. For myself, I hadn't purposely seen many really bad movies outside of MST3K episodes. I liked to think, though, that I had what it took to watch these films like the reviewers I so often read. Instead of starting with something hardcore like a Larry Buchanan film, I decided to ease into it this past weekend with a bad spy film from the 1960's. Unfortunately, this didn't do much to lessen the pain.
Dean Martin is Matt Helm in "The Silencers", a spy film spoof based on a series of popular novels by Donald Hamilton. Under the identity of a globe trotting photographer, our hero works for the secret US agency ICE (Intelligence and Counter Espionage). He is soon called on to investigate the recent activities of master criminal Tung-Tze (Victor Buono) and his nefarious organization "The Big O". At his side are his old partner Tina (Daliah Lavi) and a woman named Gail Hendrix (Stella Stevens), who may or may not be one of the bad guys. It'll take Helm's resourcefulness, intelligence and fancy gadgets in order to save the world.
One of the cardinal rules that is repeatedly intoned on the bad movie sites is that there is nothing worse than a bad comedy. At least with bad sci-fi or bad horror, you can laugh at how inept everything is when it's trying to be so serious. With bad comedy, however, there is nowhere else to go in terms of entertainment. In other words, if this were a earnest spy film that just managed to look silly in the process (such as the MSTied film "Agent from H.A.R.M."), then it would be hilarious. As it is, this is meant to be a comedy, and that's where the hurting begins.
Dean Martin really worked better off of other people, such as Jerry Lewis or the Rat Pack. Even John Wayne in "Rio Bravo" managed to get enough out of him to make his performance enjoyable. Of course, Martin's main character trait in "Rio Bravo" was that he was a recovering alcoholic, thus leading some gravity and pathos (and irony) to his character. Here, he's on his own, and is left to stumble through lines and scenes between drinks. You would think that a film starring Martin would feature some songs from him, and you'd be half right. We hear his songs on radios and such, but he never personally sings, which makes it all the more surreal as he listens to himself.
Daliah Lavi, the first of the faux Bond girls, is actually quite decent and sparks some chemistry with the oft inebriated Martin. Her scenes are few, however, as she soon makes room for Stella Stevens. Once that happens, what little existing momentum disappears and the film comes to a screeching halt. The drive that she and Martin take seems to last forever as she argues and complains and does pratfalls, always making sure that her cleavage is in full view. There is also a brief appearance by legendary Cyd Charisse, but she is completely overshadowed by the most hideous showgirl costume ever created.
Since the action packed finale is aiming for thrills more than laughs, we can start laughing again at the ridiculousness of it all. See the enemy agent who uses an electric blanket for a sight gag and then inexplicably continues to wear the cumbersome thing for the rest of the film! View the peculiar choice of lazyboy recliners in the master villain's conference room! Gape at the oddest, loudest, least effective laser in film history! And then there are the other silly spy movie staples, such as golf carts in underground tunnels, that were better parodied by Austin Powers.
In terms of other traits from the Bond films, we have "exotic locations" such as the barren desert landscapes of Mexico combined with... more barren dessert landscapes of the southwestern United States. This, combined with Helm's less-than-cool station wagon, makes this film seem more like a crummy summer vacation than international intrigue. His gadgets, of which there are three, are cool enough and are used quite often, though one gets the impression that Helm wouldn't get much done without them (whereas I'm pretty sure Sean Connery could kick anyone's ass even without Q's help).
Trust me when I say that you're much better off with "Our Man Flint" for this kind of spy spoof. Not only did it have better writing, action and charisma in leading man James Coburn, the producers of Flint had the good manners to limit their series to a pair of films compared to the four Matt Helm films that were eventually made. Oh, the horror. The horror.
Three out of Ten