Take the spirit of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road movies, add in some Cold War shenanigans, gay Russians, ninjas, Ronald Reagan, and two ’80s comedic stars to come out with Spies Like Us. Prior to John Landis making us hate him for Beverly Hills Cop III, he directed this Chevy Chase/Dan Aykroyd vehicle, a fun little romp that never takes itself seriously.
Spies Like Us gets away with quite a bit, mostly because Landis sets his usual “anything goes” tone as a US Diplomat teams up with code breaker to infiltrate a Russian nuclear arms site. You don’t question why Bob Hope suddenly shows up in the middle of Pakistan, or why Ray Harryhausen is a doctor (amongst others). You don’t question why B.B. King suddenly works for the highest level of government security, or why Yoda… err, Frank Oz is handing out crucial tests to possible spies.
The film exists to get Chase and Aykroyd from one location to another, letting them take over the screen with their antics. The direction indicates just that, rather un-amusingly keeping these two perfectly in frame to continually remind the audience that they are buddies. While forced, Chase’s quick-witted comebacks as Emmet Fitz-Hume make all of those static camera shots worth it, not to mention his always funny over-reactive face.
Spies Like Us comes up with some enjoyable action scenes, one ending as Chase casually throws a grenade into a house, landing perfectly in the stockpile of other grenades. Plenty of camels, cars, and even alien impersonations are used to keep the guys moving, which makes their journey at least less repetitious than it could have been.
Maybe repetition is what Spies Like Us excels in though. Chase is constantly tracking down the woman of his dreams, or maybe of his desperation in the middle of Pakistan, played by Donna Dixon. The flirtatious jokes keep coming, as with every Vacation movie Chase was in. It’s best gag is actually based on repetition too, the non-stop greeting of “Doctor” inside the medical tent, most of the film’s cameos crammed into a single location, all greeted with, “Doctor.”
Warner releases Spies Like Us only as a double feature with Funny Farm. What a shocker that cramming two movies with uncompressed audio and VC-1 encodes on a single disc doesn’t lead to the best results. Granted, it’s about time Spies receives a widescreen transfer after the DVD’s pan & scan affair, but it deserves better. Immediately apparent is the poorly resolved grain structure, although these days at least a grain structure is visible. The encode is constantly struggling to keep up, a few of the notable cases being at 16:24 and a noisy sky as the guys ride a camel at 59:16. Artifacting is terribly apparent.
Flesh tones occasionally appear over saturated and red, especially at the start as the briefcase is being delivered. Later scenes inside the drive-in bunker/base suffer the same issue. A sequence as the stars are being given the promotion around 20-minutes in looks artificially pumped up, the contrast slightly hot and the colors well beyond natural. Some black crush is visible here as well, generally a random issue elsewhere.
The best stuff on the disc, despite the inadequate encode and pervasive softness, happens in Pakistan. Their arrival, where countless freedom fighters descend on them, produces some bold, rich colors. The local clothing is quite vibrant. Some meager definition, aided by the healthy dose of outdoor lighting, is evident. A great shot of the road at 48:09 shows pebbles and other rocks nicely rendered and individually distinct. The best close-up of the entire disc happens in this desert environment, that of a camel at 59:48, where the fur is readily visible and (slightly) sharply defined. There are human-oriented close-ups that resolve minimal texture, although these are rare (Chase reveals some limited pores at1:04:37). At the very least, the source is in great shape, with almost no damage or dirt to speak of, but on its own disc with a healthier encode, Spies could look a lot better.
A DTS-HD 2.0 mono effort is fine for what it is. Elmer Bernstein crafted a rather grand score the film, one that comes through cleanly without too much distortion. Clarity on the high-end is impressive, easily the highlight of anything audio-related on the disc. Gunfire comes through strained and distorted by comparison.
The biggest issue here is a non-stop hiss under the audio, readily apparent at 7:00, and continuing through most of the film when there is a quiet moment. It never becomes loud, just an annoyance. Dialogue remains firm if flat, normal for the era. Various ambient effect mix well, from rooms full of chatter, to busy markets, and windy mountain tops.
With two movies, who has room for extras? There’s nothing here.