The big-screen version of the classic 1960’s television show created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry is more than an update. It shrewdly tweaks the original, making its hero, Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) smarter and more capable than the bumbling and befuddled but always game and confident spy played by Don Adams and ramping up the action, and the result is a refreshingly entertaining summer popcorn movie.
The television show could get away with a wilder, more slapstick tone. At the time, spy stories like the early James Bond and television’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E were wildly popular and ripe for parody. But fact and fiction have made the audience less easily dazzled by spycraft and the non-stop silliness of the “Naked Gun” and “Scary Movie” series have made the audience too familiar with that category of comedy convention. Movies are longer and special effects are bigger, so there is the time and capacity for some action sequences.
But the movie will also satisfy fans of the show with its most memorable characters and catch phrases. Carell does not copy Adams’ preeningly clueless characterization but brings his own take — still clueless, but more endearingly sincere. His Maxwell Smart is actually very good at what he does. He analyzes data. He’s a desk guy. But he wants to be a field agent and has worked very hard to get there. The Chief (Alan Arkin, exasperated) does not want to see his best researcher turn into his far-from-best field agent. But when the agents list is compromised and he needs someone whose name is not known to anyone, Smart gets his chance.
He is assigned to work with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), an experienced agent who has just had an identity reassignment including a new face. And the two of them are sent to track down a rogue weapons dealer (Terence Stamp, with the indispensable attribute of a bad guy: an English accent), his eastern-European henchmen, one of whom could be a body double for the Yeti.
The action scenes are exceptionally well-paced, genuinely exciting and often very funny. Carell makes Smart an appealing character, a bit of a Walter Mitty who is ideally (and literally) suited for a desk job but who dreams of making the kind of contribution that can only be made in the field. Arkin steps easily into Ed Platt’s shoes (yes the shoe phone makes an appearance) as the Chief and Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson brings the right combination of glamor and wit to the role of a top agent. And the casting for the Hymie character is so perfect I will not spoil it by saying any more.
It is about 20 minutes too long, with one too many set-ups, and the last one drags a bit. But fans of the television show will enjoy some riffs and references to its most popular gags and tag lines and those who are new to the characters will find a lot to enjoy.