35 Years Ago: ‘Spies Like Us’ Falters When It Gets to the Spy Part
Spies Like Us followed the growing '80s-era premise that a Saturday Night Live alum or two was all a comedy needed to find success at the box office. Plot? Not so much.
The film, which opened on Dec. 6, 1985, began life as a sort of homage to the legendary Road pictures starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, according to director John Landis. But that's precisely when the laughs die out, as Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase transition from low-level government flunkies into unwitting red herrings at far-off locales in a convoluted Cold War-era narrative.
Aykroyd had actually been working on the script for years, having first envisioned the movie as another chance to pair up with their fellow SNL co-star John Belushi. Then Belushi overdosed. A few years later, Chase became available once he jettisoned a similar but incomplete spy-themed project.
"After John died, the script was rewritten for Dan and Richard Pryor, but the studios didn't like it," Chase told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. "I had been working at Warner Bros. on an ABSCAM-like project that I wasn't too keen about, but I told them that I did like this script that Danny had written about a couple of State Department spies who are sent off as decoys on a mission."
That was the spark Aykroyd needed. "Chevy helped me get Spies Like Us made," Aykroyd told the Boston Globe in 1988. "I'm a great originator, I'll say that about myself. But as an executor, I like the collaborative process. I like that boiler-room atmosphere. I guess that's from the show. I like to write."
Watch the Cheating on the Exam Scene From 'Spies Like Us'
The story was later polished by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who were then best known for the hit comedy Splash. But Aykroyd took his first opportunity as a screenwriter very seriously – and the Rooskie-fighting secret agent stuff, too.
"It was a lot of great ideas, but it was a little formless and needed work," Aykroyd told Knight-Ridder Newspapers in 1985. So he and Dave Thomas, an SCTV album who developed the story with Aykroyd, took a road trip for inspiration. They actually "went to Ian Fleming's house in Jamaica, the GoldenEye Plantation – you know, where he wrote the [James] Bond novels," Aykroyd said, adding reverently: "I sat at his desk."
The best moments, however, had nothing to do with 007. Chase's patented blend of idiocy and irony is particularly effective during an early scene where he takes a foreign-service exam. The basic-training sequence offers a few chuckles, in particular as the pair is put through "radical vertical-impact simulation." Then Landis whisks them away for a Really Big Adventure, having assembled a supporting cast of savvy vets (Bruce Davison, Steve Forrest from S.W.A.T., Monty Python's Terry Gilliam) and relative newcomers (Donna Dixon of TV's Bosom Buddies, former model Vanessa Angel).
"We shot in Norway and the Sahara, which double in the movie for Russia and Pakistan," Chase told the Tribune, "and basically what we do is prevent World War III." That small detail is kept hidden until the climax, however, turning the true nature of the bumbling spies' mission into a cheap-ploy revelation.
Along the way, we also never learn why these two remarkably incompatible main characters would ever be friends. The focus instead is on dick jokes and doctor-doctor-doctor jokes.
Watch the Intelligence Training Scene From 'Spies Like Us'
Spies Like Us eventually devolves into a "loose progression of recycled Abbott and Costello riffs and fumbled Strangelovean satire," as the Chicago Reader rightly noted. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel seemed to be far more interested in Angel, who played a curvy Soviet rocket-crew member, than anything that actually happened to Aykroyd's former codebreaker or Chase's entitled pencil pusher.
Best then for movie buffs to focus on Landis' penchant for cameos, as several fellow directors (including Michael Apted and Martin Brest) join Bob Hope, Frank Oz and B.B. King in guest roles. Of course, not everybody was enamored with the tactic. "It's director John Landis' way of ensuring that at least someone will want to see his movie," the Washington Post sniffed. Still, King delivered one of the film's most quotable moments: "Won't you gentlemen have a Pepsi?"
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the budget eventually ballooned to $22 million. Yet hopes were still understandably high: Aykroyd was coming off Ghostbusters, and Chase had just starred in the sequel to his huge hit National Lampoon's Vacation. Aykroyd, Chase, Landis, Dixon and Angel also returned for the video to accompany Paul McCartney's title song, helping the former Beatles star to his final Top 10 Billboard single.
More critics pounced, but the SNL-stars-in-underdeveloped-'80s-comedies formula worked: Spies Like Us slipped into the year-ending Top 10 for highest-grossing films with $60 million in domestic box-office gross.