They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and nowhere else is that more true than Hollywood. Be it through attempting to capitalise on another’s success (DC’s Justice League in answer to Marvel’s Avengers series) or just sheer bad luck (the incredibly specific ‘animated ant colony’ 1998 duo A Bug’s Life and Antz), there are a huge number of copycat films. There is also a thriving parody sub-genre which fully embraces this; for 300, think Meet The Spartans, or Vampires Suck to the Twilight saga. I’m going to dig further into this genre to investigate a pair of James Bond parodies who attack the subject in wildly different ways – Austin Powers and Kingsman.
In order to evaluate the copycats, you first need to take a swing at the source material. By now, everyone knows what to expect from James Bond films (although Daniel Craig’s has provided a grittier approach to 007’s pantheon): rampant alcoholism; an alluring ‘Bond girl’; a spectacular car chase; an over-the-top villain with a gimmicky henchman and a plan to take over the world; and a barrelful of one-liners and gadgets. Austin Powers and Kingsman both feature every one of these in abundance.
“It sets its stall out as a referential comedy… but by doing so simultaneously excludes any chance of it being viewed in any other light”
Directed by Jay Loach and starring Michael Myers as both hero and villain, Austin Powers embraces the ridiculous side of the Bond legacy. A 60’s superspy is brought out of his cryogenic sleep in the 90’s to apprehend his time-travelling nemesis, Dr. Evil, and so ensue the traditional 007 hijinks. Where this parody succeeds is in poking fun at the Bond films – moments such as Dr. Evil bemoaning the difficulty of obtaining sharks with lasers on their heads, or Powers’ litany of head puns after a henchman is decapitated, are almost shown with a wink at the audience, such is their self-awareness. It sets its stall out as a referential comedy and succeeds at that (one character’s name is literally Basil Exposition), but by doing so simultaneously excludes any chance of it being viewed in any other light. In a hypothetical world where the James Bond films were never made, Austin Powers would simply not be funny. Certain scenes are hilarious just due to editing or line delivery, but by and large it could not stand up on its own merits, which leads me to the other approach towards a Bond parody.
Kingsman: The Secret Service, written, directed, and produced by Matthew Vaughn, eschews reference humour in preference of embracing the Bond tropes and thus produces a sharp, stylized spy flick. Taron Egerton and Colin Firth star as misadjusted teen Eggsy and his secret service mentor ‘Galahad’, opposite Samuel L. Jackson’s moustache-twirling villain Richmond Valentine. What I love about this firm is how it takes the silliness of the Bond films and plays it straight rather than for laughs. By using Eggsy as our focal point, the film exposes him to the absurdity of the Kingsman organisation at the same time as it does the audience, uniting us with the protagonist. The rest of the film rattles along at breakneck pace, only pausing for none-too-subtle 007 nods in implausible gadgets and a sword-legged henchwoman. Every actor is perfectly selected – Egerton’s mix of enthusiasm and confusion plays effortlessly off Firth’s debonair gentleman spy, Jackson’s charismatically insane supervillain (intent, of course, on world domination) and the wealth of supporting talent evidenced by Mark Strong, Michael Caine and Mark Hamill. The editing and soundtrack is clean and only adds to the excellent acting without forming a distraction. One incredible scene is a single-take church brawl set to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”, featuring 360° camera shots and jaw-dropping stunt choreography. Kingsman climaxes like any Bond film should; a race-against-time duel against the villain and their henchman in a mountain fortress, capped off by saving the Bond Girl (in this case, a Swedish princess). What makes Kingsman work, and work so well, is embracing the ridiculousness of the Bond source material, and producing a sharp and tight action film that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
“if you’re clued up on the Bond saga you’ll enjoy a few of the nods a little more, but it’s still a great film without those references”
To form some sort of a conclusion, I’ve investigated two very different ways of parodying a legendary franchise such as 007. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with Austin Powers’ referential slapstick (in fact, it remains one of my favourite comedies and is exceptionally quotable), the fact that it doesn’t particularly stand up on its own merits does degrade it somewhat. On the other hand, Kingsman works exceptionally as a standalone due to the phenomenal performances, tight choreography and whirlwind pace – if you’re clued up on the Bond saga you’ll enjoy a few of the nods a little more, but it’s still a great film without those references. I’m not offering a definitive rule as to what makes the best parody, but it is worth considering whether you need your satire to be self-sustaining. In the meantime, watch both films; even if you’ve seen them before, you’ll probably enjoy them again. Just, stay away from the sequels.