Perhaps the best of the Bond rip-offs, this 60s classic offers style, self-aware humor, and an iconic performance by James Coburn.
From the moment that the James Bond film franchise established itself as a worldwide phenomenon, everyone from the biggest Hollywood studios to fly-by-night European exploitation producers tried to jump on the bandwagon with their own. Although there were a few efforts where no expense was spared—most notably the gargantuan star-studded Casino Royale—most of them were produced on minuscule budgets that tried to replicate the lavish trappings of the typical Bond film with cheapo special effects and loads of stock footage. In addition, few of these efforts were able to find a star with the kind of instant audience appeal that Sean Connery possessed—not even when the producers of Operation Kid Brother (1967) had the ingenious idea of casting Sean’s younger brother Neil in the lead. Many of these films, realizing that they could not compete in therms of scale or star power elected to go the spoof route, but even there, they mostly failed to compete because the Bond films were themselves already semi-spoofs that rare took themselves too seriously.
Although this cycle of films coughed up a couple of interesting items—Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966) was a super-stylish bit of pop-art weirdness and even Casino Royale has a certain mutant charm to it—the only one that really worked, both then and now, was Our Man Flint (1966). Although it was not produced on the same lush scale of Bond blockbusters like Thunderball (1965), it had enough money behind it to at least convincingly suggest that it was in the same league. Like others films of its type, it took the tongue-in-cheek approach but remembered to include bits of actual wit amidst the silliness. Most importantly, in the form of James Coburn, it had a star who actually did match Connery, not just in terms of screen charism but in his ability to convincingly dole out both punches and punchlines.
Coburn plays Derek Flint, a former agent of Z.O.W.I.E. (Zoal Organization World Intelligence Espionage), with a resume that makes him seem like a cross between Buckaroo Banzai and a Dewar’s Profile, who is now spending his retirement with his bevy of live-in “playmates”: Leslie (Shelby Grant), Anna (Sigrid Valdis), Gina (Gianna Serra) and Sakito (Helen Funai). His peace is broken with the arrival of ex-boss Cramden (Lee J. Cobb), who doesn’t like Flint or his lone wolf ways, but a new threat to the world has arrived that only he can stop. Someone is engineering catastrophic ecological events—floods, volcanoes, earthquakes and the like—and Flint is charged with uncovering who is behind it all and stopping them in the proverbial nick of time.
Like others films of its type, it took the tongue-in-cheek approach but remembered to include bits of actual wit amidst the silliness.
Eschewing the proffered gadgets and electing to use only his wits, skills and a tricked-out lighter with 82 separate functions (“83, if you want to light a cigar” he mentions in the film’s most famous line), Flint takes the case and soon discovers that the chaos is the work of Galaxy, an organization led by a trio of mad scientists (Benson Fong, Rhys Williams and Peter Brocco), who plan to use their powers to force the governments of the world to get rid of all their weapons and capitulate to them in order to create a new and perfect world. Galaxy agent Gila (Gila Golan) and her treacherous assistant (Edward Mulhare) unsuccessfully attempt to kill Flint, but do manage to kidnap his playmates in the process. Flint tracks them down to a remote volcanic island in the Mediterranean Sea and manages to—Spoiler Alert—save the world and the women while destroying Galaxy’s plans for world domination for good.
Co-written by Hal Fimberg and Ben Starr (the latter would go on to help create such deathless television classics as The Facts of Life and Silver Spoons) and directed by Daniel Mann (a long ways away from such previous efforts as I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) and Butterfield 8 (1960)), Our Man Flint is admittedly a mess from a purely narrative level—the story has such a slapdash quality to it that there are times when it feels as if everyone just made it up from day to day while the cameras were rolling. With most films that would be a detriment, but in this case it helps to give the proceedings a weird sort of charm. Yes, it is a mess but it is a mess on purpose—it could almost be mistaken for being post-modern at times—and the sheer goofiness on display throughout (from Flint having to put some change in a pay toilet in the middle of a fight to reach the bad guy to being uncovered on Galaxy Island by an anti-American American eagle) has allowed it to age better than many of the other films of its ilk.
The best thing about the film is the presence of Coburn, who had been a reliable supporting player to that point in his career in films like The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963) and Major Dundee (1965) but who became an international star when Our Man Flint became a big hit. The whole thing is nonsense, of course, but instead of trying to match the silliness surrounding him, he takes a more laid-back approach to the material that, as Connery did as Bond, lets us know that he is in on the joke without ever overdoing it. At the same time, also like Connery, he projects an underlying sense of toughness that helps to sell the action scenes in a way that Dean Martin, for example, was never quite able to pull off in the Matt Helm films.
Although Our Man Flint was one of the most successful of the Bond clones when it came out, it would only inspire one follow-up, the sloppy In Like Flint (1967) before Coburn decided to do other things. However, echoes of the film would tun up in popular culture from time to time. Films like Hudson Hawk (1991) and the Austin Powers franchise would echo its loose, anything goes spirit (Coburn would turn up as one of the villains in the former.) Those films, among others, would also deploy the distinctive sound of the presidential hotline ringtone as an in-joke to fans. Wall of Voodoo would use parts of the magnificent Jerry Goldsmith theme for in their rendition of “Ring of Fire.” Perhaps the strangest of them all involves that previously mentioned bad guy that Flint fights in the pay toilet. The character’s name? Hans Gruber.