1981, United States
Michael Crawford, Oliver Reed, Barbara Carrera, James Hampton, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Dana Elcar, Vernon Dobtcheff, Robert Arden, Gerard Buhr, David Pontremoli
As I am now, so too was I as a child: a very forgiving viewer. I’m sure there is some sort of mathematical algorithm that can predict exactly what amount of cool stuff (as defined by me) a movie has to have to make me forget the probably greater amount of boring stuff in it. I haven’t been good at math since seventh grade, so I’ll leave it to the eggheads with their supercomputers and pulsating frontal lobes to figure that one out. Suffice it to say that my brain, caffeine and alcohol addled place that it is, has a tremendous capacity for screening out the crap in a movie and only remembering the bits it thought were entertaining. It’s the sort of mental agility that allowed me as a child and continues to allow me as an adult to squeeze enjoyment out of bloodless stones that crush others. That’s why I can watch a movie like Treasure of the Four Crowns or Ator: The Fighting Eagle and walk away, unscathed, and perhaps even mildly satisfied with what I’ve just seen.
And so it puzzles me, given the churning sea of garbage that I so easily accepted as a kid, that I should have had such a vigorously negative reaction to — bordering on outright hatred of — Condorman back then. What was it about this movie that so anrgied up my blood? What did it do to me that I would continue to stoke those embers of rage well into adulthood, so much so that I made every effort possible to defame the film every chance I got. And you know I live the sort of life where the chance to defame Condorman in casual conversation comes up almost as often as discussion on the proper way to tie a cravat or how to remove a cocktail dress with one hand while flawlessly pouring three glasses of champagne with the other (because her friend will be joining us).
The most obvious answer, as I sit down to re-examine the film so many years after it first sent me into fits of howling fury, is that all of the stills, all of the television commercials, all of the marketing materials Disney fired into my face in 1981, promised be an action-packed superhero movie. That is not, however, the movie they delivered. What they gave me instead was a quirky, breezy spy movie in which the Condorman superhero outfit so prominent in all the ads played almost no role. That made small me very upset. Keep in mind that this is Disney in the early 1980s, a former powerhouse studio that found itself unexpectedly floundering and unsure of what to do. Their animated films weren’t garnering the audience acceptance or critical praise they had once assumed was the birthright of any Disney cartoon. Their live action division was faring even worse and had entered into what many people regard as “the weird years.”
They were making a lot of movies that, in retrospect, were ambitious and risky for a studio with the family-friendly reputation of Disney. While I admire the chances they took on strange, usually darker material, it’s obvious that the studio had no idea how to sell it once it was complete. So a gory, grim fantasy film like Dragonslayer gets marketed as a whimsical movie that will remind you of Pete’s Dragon. The similarly grim, surprisingly dark and psychological Black Hole gets marketed as Disney’s answer to Star Wars, complete with cute wise-cracking robots (never mind that the cuteness was superficial and the wisecracks were mostly dry and sardonic). TRON gets marketed as… well, no one knew how to even fake market TRON. And Condorman gets marketed as a superhero movie along the lines of Superman. The bait-and-switch is nothing new, of course, but Condorman was the first time I remember it suckering me specifically, and I was not forgiving.
I’m no Disney hater. They’ve done some great work, and they’ve done some terrible work, and they’ve done a lot of mediocre work. Many of my favorite adventure films are Disney productions. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island, Scarecrow of Romney Marsh — I absolutely love these movies. Even many of the lesser adventure films make me happy. And I like a fair number of Disney animated works, though I admit the 90s revival never really clicked with me. Pinocchio was the first movie that ever terrified me (seriously, that whale… that part where they turn into donkeys…), and I love when movies terrify me. So it’s not a foregone conclusion that I carry some chip on my shoulder in regards to Disney the way many cult film commentators might. Almost everything Disney did during their rudderless weird years got a huge seal of approval from me. I loved TRON, Black Hole, and Dragonslayer — saw each of them multiple times in the theater. Their animated film from 1981, The Fox and the Hound, is one of my favorite Disney cartoons. I might even still get choked up a little at the end and have to reach for my lavender scented handkerchief to dab at my eyes.
I didn’t mind that any of those live-action movies had screwy advertising that promised something a little different than what was actually delivered, because they still delivered me basically what I was expecting. Dragonslayer may have been gorier and darker than I expected (or parents wanted), but by that time I loved gory and dark and so was happy to see guts and blood and Peter MacNicol’s naked ass. Black Hole may have been less action-packed that the ads told me, but it was still all full of space and creepy robots and Norman Bates getting ripped to shreds by propeller arms. So again, I was happy. And TRON? TRON was just full of awesome weirdness.
But Condorman… man, that thing just set me off.
And it did it probably because, in my limited experience at the time, the gulf between what it promised and what it delivered was so much more substantial than the gulf between the promise and the reality of any of the other movies I mentioned. By adulthood, I couldn’t even remember why I hated Condorman. I could only remember that I did. That was just too much like those stories where two sides have been killing each other for so long that they can no longer even remember why they are fighting. So I decided it was time to sit my pouting former self in the corner and take another look at Condorman. I mean, it does have Oliver Reed in it. It turns out that, while no lost work of great art, adult me had a rare disagreement with nine-year-old me. Knowing now that it wasn’t actually a superhero film, and loving now the breezy Eurospy films of the 1960s as I do, I found revisiting Condorman to be an insubstantial but thoroughly enjoyable espionage adventure. Actually, looking back at it, it’s surprising just how prescient some of Condorman‘s ideas were.
The hero is Woody Wilkins (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum‘s Michael Crawford), a cartoonist who’s most popular character is Condorman. However, we learn in the film’s opening scene that Woody is as insistent as Christopher Nolan that his comic book hero be as grounded in reality as possible. So committed is Woody to this that he has built himself his own Condorman outfit — which looks as absurd as spandex comic book superhero costumes always do when actual people put them on — and attempts himself any feat he might want Condorman to do, verifying that it could actually be accomplished before it gets into the comic book. This was at a time when the notion of “realism” in superhero movies and comics wasn’t exactly high priority. Wally’s best friend, Harry Oslo (TV actor James Hampton), happens to be a low-ranking nobody at the CIA. When a simple exchange of information job comes his way, the Russians with whom the CIA is doing the deal demand that the hand-off be made by two non-agents. Harry figures his pal Woody is perfect for the job, and after some token protests about safety, Woody accepts.
Only he lets himself get a little too into the role, pretending to be America’s number one superspy in order to impress the beautiful Russian (Never Say Never Again‘s Barbara Carrera) with whom he is supposed to meet. It turns out the lovely Natalia (because all Russian women in spy movies are named Natalia or Tatyana) actually is a spy. When Woody puts on his act and accidentally foils an assault, she and her superior Krokov (mighty, mighty Oliver Reed) become convinced that Woody is indeed a top CIA operative. Which means when Natalia decides she wants to defect, she demands that her savior be the one American spy she knows can best anyone and everyone the KGB can throw at him: Woody Wilkens, code name Condorman.
Going into it this time, remembering that it wasn’t a superhero movie, I was pleasantly surprised with it being a spry, action packed spy film that has quite a lot in common with the finger-snapping, tongue-in-cheek Eurospy films of the 60s. It has the same jokey tone while being a fun example of the genre it’s spoofing. Hampton and Crawford look about as far away from James Bond-esque spies as you could possibly get, and I think that works in the film’s favor. I always like when an action movie casts a lead who doesn’t “look like an action star.” Because very few people who perform feats of heroics and derring-do in real life look like action stars. Tough guy action star John Wayne stayed at home during World War II and pretended to fight it on screen, but lanky goofball Jimmy Stewart actually fought and came back a decorated hero. What I really like most about Crawford’s performance though is that he doesn’t play it incompetent or silly. He can’t win a one-on-one fight, but he can certainly think and improvise his way out of a situation. Thrown into the deep end of the spy game, he falls back on simple determination and a host of tricks gleaned from comic books to emerge as a slightly harried and sometimes panicked but almost always competent hero.
Barbara Carrera, who would appear in an actual — if unofficial — Bond film a couple years later, makes a lovely female co-star, but the film comes up with very little for her to do beyond stand around waiting for Woody to come up with some crazy scheme to get the two of them out of a pickle. I don’t expect her to go all Fatima Blush (a shame that one of the better female Bond villains was relegated to one of the lesser Bond films), but it would have been nice, given that she is supposed to be an accomplished Soviet agent, to see her a little more active. I guess this is sort of a modern-day “boy’s own adventure” kind of story, made at a time when effective female heroes were being phased out after having had some fun in the 1970s, so just about everything that gets done in the movie gets done by Woody.
Pursuing the both of them across Europe is one of Britain’s truly great stars. Oliver Reed began his career at Hammer Studios, playing an assortment of thuggish rogues and roguish heroes, usually in support of the studio heavies like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. In 1961, he finally got a crack at a leading role when he starred in Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf — a fantastic film that was unjustly forgotten for too long amid the shuffle of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy movies for which the studio was better known. Reed was wonderful in it, seething with animal charisma. While he didn’t appear in any of the staple franchises of the studio, Reed was a regular fixture in their more offbeat, psychological horror films. He later started working with director Ken Russell, racked up some major awards, and began to build himself reputation as a rowdy, violent drunk that would but even Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole to shame. His 1969 movie Women in Love was the first mainstream film to feature full-frontal male nudity, when Ollie grapples in the nude with co-star Alan Bates. Never one to shy away from personal or professional controversy, he also starred in the first mainstream film to use the word “fuck” (I’ll Never Forget Whats’ ‘isname) and the first British film to receive an X rating for violence (1972’s Sitting Target). He was also the only major British actor of the time not to have a career on the stage.
All the while, his appetite for booze, womanizing, and fighting were spiraling out of control. News and gossip shows would concentrate on his off-screen antics more than his on-screen accomplishment, which only pushed Reed further into a red rage — so much so one time that an appearance on David Letterman’s show had to cut to an emergency break for fear that Ollie was about to beat the shit out of Letterman for persisting in questions about the actors drinking. Frankly, though, Letterman could have probably used a sound ass whupping. By the end of the 1970s, Reed’s self-destructive behavior had almost fully eclipsed his career as an actor, and he found himself working mostly in television and low budget movies. Although he would surface from time to time is higher profile films in small roles, he was an unrepentant drinker (even serious kidney disease didn’t stop him for long) and fighter, so his career never experienced the rebirth enjoyed by so many other fallen stars.
At least not until 2000, when he was cast in Ridley’s Scott big budget sword and sandal film Gladiator. It was a substantial role, and one for which he received quite a bit of praise — none of which he ever heard. For better or worse, he was true to his tumultuous nature until the very end, and passed away of a heart attack during filming and after downing an ungodly amount of rum then challenging a host of sailors to arm wrestling matches. If you find yourself in London stop by The Duke of Hamilton pub in Hampstead, one of his favorite bars (and where he, Burton, and O’Toole were most often found together), and raise a pint in his honor. He was a bastard, a fuck up, a drunk, a brilliant artist, a doomed soul, a magnificent son of a bitch, and one of Teleport City’s true heroes.
His appearance in Condorman is a smaller but not unsubstantial role, and for the most part he turns in a pretty good performance. He’s definitely not giving it his all, but then I don’t think it’s the sort of movie that could have withstood full frontal Oliver Reed. He spends much of the movie in pretty much the same way lots of disgraced former stars spend their time in goofy movies: loitering behind a desk. I was afraid this was all we were going to get of him, but once the final act kicks into gear, Ollie dispatches himself into the field and gets to blow some stuff up while looking enraged and/or exasperated.
With a game cast, Condorman goes about the business of trying its hardest to be a kid-friendly take on the James Bond franchise without being the pandering sort of kids’ spy film we too often had to endure. I apreciate any kids’ film where the lead actor isn’t a kid, or where in fact no children at all are present, as is the case with Condorman. It’s obvious that Disney spent most of the budget on the jet setting location work and a fleet of Porsches. The special effects, when they rear their heads, are pretty bad. But that really only happens at the very end, when the corny Condorman suit makes its appearance. Funny that when I was a kid, I demanded this movie be full of the Condorman suit, and as an adult, I think the film’s only real weakness is the appearance of the Condorman suit. Cut it out entirely and sell this to me as a straight up spy adventure, and I’m good. It has a lot of gadgets, including a ridiculous looking car, and it was made at a time when stunt work was still accomplished by stunt people rather than computer animation, so you get a lot of pretty good stunts, including an awesome car chase in which the movie demolishes…what was it? Half a dozen Porsches? There’s also a pretty great boat chase scene, complete with rocket launchers and laser cannons.
Upon its release, I was hardly the only person disappointed with the film. It was almost universally panned and died a swift death at the box office. To this day, it’s one of the only film’s from Disney’s weird period that hasn’t managed to build up much of a cult following. Dragonslayer is pretty well beloved these days. Black Hole has a legion of fans to go along with its legions of hecklers. TRON managed to build so much pop cultural cache that they decided to make a sequel to it thirty years after the fact. But Condorman has not enjoyed the same level of reputation rehabilitation, even though as I discovered, it probably deserves it. It’s continued obscurity is perhaps due in large part to it’s treatment on home video. A DVD was eventually released and went out of print. Since then, Disney has kept the film out of the public eye, the only other release being a very limited offering to members of their DVD club. A shame, since the movie is a lot of fun.
It’s not the sort of film that is so good that I would build some sort of crusade around it, but it’s good enough that it deserves a second chance. Director Charles Jarrott keeps everything moving along swiftly and packs plenty of bloodless thrills into the run time. If there’s anything negative to be said about his handling of the film, it’s that his experience primarily as a television director comes through, making the film sometimes look more like a very nice TV movie than the big budget globetrotter it should look like. But that’s a minor quibble, really, and like I said, this is one of those rare moments when old me has to break company from young me. We still agree on everything from The Sword and The Sorcerer to Godzilla’s Revenge. But old me also really enjoyed Condorman. It’s harmless and light-hearted but not gutless or limp. I liked the characters, I liked the action, and I liked seeing so many Porsches get destroyed. So if you can track it down, and even if you hated this movie as a kid, Condorman is worth another look. It might surprise you as much as it did me.