Nostalgia is a powerful tool, and it’s one of the driving forces behind the new feature film adaptation of the ’60s spy spoof TV series “Get Smart.” Rather than totally reinvent the entire show (Mission: Impossible), slavishly re-create it (The Addams Family) or completely lampoon it (The Brady Bunch Movie), the producers of this action comedy have chosen to pay tribute to the original by cramming as many in-jokes, guest cameos and familiar characters as possible. The results are far from fresh, but they are funny, fast-paced and a certified treat for longtime fans.
Increasingly popular comic actor Steve Carell (The 50-Year-Old Virgin) seems as good a substitute as any for the late, great Don Adams. The 2008 version of Agent 86 is a bit different, though. Instead of the overconfident boob of the ’60s, this Maxwell Smart is a surprisingly competent data miner working for the secret government spy agency CONTROL. Bored with his desk job, Max dreams of becoming a field agent like his idol, the supremely capable superspy Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson, dropping “The Rock” once and for all). Unfortunately, Max is too good at his job as an analyst, combing through stacks and stacks of boring telephone conversations. The Chief (Alan Arkin) wants to keep Max right where he is. An untimely attack on CONTROL headquarters by the evil international criminal organization KAOS leaves the spy agency short on spies, however. Max is quickly promoted and teamed with sexy spitfire Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) to help stop KAOS’ mad scheme.
The plot (some “24”-inspired nonsense about nuking the President of the United States) is a slim excuse upon which to string a series of comic vignettes, most of them borrowed from other more serious films (the “agents’ identities have been compromised” gimmick from Mission: Impossible, the “limbo under deadly lasers” sequence from Entrapment). Honestly, 1980’s long-forgotten “Get Smart” feature The Nude Bomb had a more intricate plot.
While the director and the writers could be accused of dogging it just a little, the cast, at least, is having fun. Carell does his best to own the character, adding his own spin to classic lines and painting Maxwell Smart as a well-meaning guy in over his head. Arkin is an old-time comic ringer and a welcome sight. Hathaway is fetching in a role that mostly requires her to be fetching. Terence Stamp is an inspired choice as KAOS head baddie Siegfried. Bill Murray shows up as disguise-loving Agent 13—a cameo that sadly only lasts about 30 seconds.
Most of the laughs actually come from nod-and-a-wink references to the old series. Maxwell Smart’s catchphrases are all recycled here. Nearly all the original gadgets (“Cone of Silence,” anyone?) make an appearance. There are a couple clever cameos. And even some of the show’s iconic props get their day in the sun. Most of this isn’t enough to raise more than a knowing chuckle, but it’s consistently fun to watch and see what will crop up next.
The only major complaint about this new Get Smart is that all involved seem a little too concerned with paying tribute to the source material. While it’s great fan service to see, for example, robotic CONTROL agent Hymie make a late appearance, there’s no real reason for him to be in the film. Most of the people on screen, in fact, aren’t really given much to do. Techie agents Bruce and Lloyd (Masi Oka and Nate Torrence) basically stand around waiting for their chance to headline the soon-to-be-released direct-to-DVD sequel GS: Get Bruce and Lloyd. The Artist Formerly Known As The Rock’s much-hyped character doesn’t even show up in 80 percent of the movie.
While it’s great to see the reverence Get Smart has for “Get Smart,” a little more effort could have been put into crafting a more solid framework around which to hang all these loving jokes. Get Smart is mildly amusing and mostly entertaining—but, in the immortal words of Max Smart, the filmmakers “missed it by that much.”