Condorman (1981) – Review

Bondmania was still a fairly big thing throughout the 70s and 80s, with Roger Moore taking the character in a broader more comedic direction, and even though by the end of the decade entries like Moonraker got a bit too ridiculous, they still managed to bring in some serious box office returns. So it’s no surprise that the people at Disney thought to wet their beaks in the genre. Of course, being from The House of Mouse, they had to tone down the violence even more than the Moore films had—less blood more over-the-top action—and drop the overt sexual nature found in the previous films of the genre. The result was Condorman, a mostly forgettable spy romp starring that dude who would later become The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.

The movie is loosely based on the Robert Sheckley novel The Game of X but where the book dealt with a jobless American in Europe, being recruited by British intelligence to help catch a spy, the movie Condorman was about an American comic book writer and illustrator Woodrow “Woody” Wilkins (Michael Crawford). Wilkins is asked by his best friend and C.I.A. agent Harry Oslo (James Hampton) to participate in a civilian document swap with a Russian agent in Istanbul. The Russian agent, code-named “The Bear,” is the beautiful Natalia Rambova (Barbara Carrera) who captivates Woody so much that he lies to her and says that he’s not in fact a civilian, but is really a super-agent who goes by the code-name Condorman. She is at first skeptical of this until she watches him take out several Turkish thugs, but of course it’s his natural clumsiness and pure dumb luck that allows him to survive the encounter, not any CIA or MI6 training.

Woody is The Man Who Knew Too Little.

Hapless amateurs and clueless idiots were certainly nothing new at the time of Condorman’s release; Peter Sellers practically mined the trope to death with his Inspector Clouseau character in the Pink Panther movies, and Get Smart with Don Adams parodying the spy genre for six seasons on television from 1965 to 1970, but what those two characters of the spy spoof genre had that Condorman lacked was a likable protagonist.  Michael Crawford’s Woody comes across not so much as a lovable doofus, but more as an arrogant jerk whose stupidity is going to get somebody killed. The entire premise to his character is beyond moronic; we first see him in Paris leaping off the Eiffel Tower to test out his Condorman costume, but why in the hell is a comic book writer actually trying to fly, you ask? Turns out he will only put something in his comic book if he can verify if it’s possible, “That’s the way I create,” he tells Harry in his Paris apartment after his Condorman costume had sent him plummeting into the River Seine. “If Condorman can’t do something in real life then I won’t have him do it in one of my comic books.”

If Bob Kane and Bill Finger worked this way, Batman would never have existed.

So right out of the gate we have an eccentric moron being humored by his CIA pal, and my suspension of disbelief is officially broken—and we haven’t even gotten to the part where Harry’s CIA boss (Dana Elcar) wants Woody to go back into the field and help with a Russian defection. Turns out, Natalia was so impressed with him in Istanbul that she has requested that Condorman be the one to help her. Not only does the CIA go along with this, but they agree to Woody’s insane request that they outfit him with all the Condorman gadgets from his comic book. He’s basically given the keys to Fort Knox to fund this mission! But—what is even crazier—is that Harry’s boss says, “I want you there yesterday!” I don’t care what unlimited budget the CIA. has, you can’t just whip up a gadget-laden super-car or a functional flying Condorman suit in a couple of hours.

Even Bond’s pal Q would take at least a weekend to get that built.

Things get even dumber when we see that Woody has barely a clue as to how to operate said super-car, which makes sense considering they had no time to build this thing, and definitely not enough time to give Woody a proper briefing. We see him randomly hitting buttons labeled with such helpful words as “Mode,” “Enter,” and “Clear,” as well as the letters A B & C, and a number pad, yet his indiscriminate pressing of these button launches missiles, activates lasers and flamethrowers—all right in the nick of time. It was at this point I suspected that Woody’s crash into the River Seine actually landed him in a Parisian hospital and all this spy stuff is a coma-induced dream.

It’d certainly explain why someone like Natalia would fall in love with a moron.

The villains of this piece are also about as threatening as Boris and Natasha from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. We have Sergei Krokov (Oliver Reed) as Natalia’s KGB handler—the man who wants her back and Woody dead; and the one-eyed Russian killer Morovich (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) sent out by Krokov to stop the defection—apparently a notorious killer whose very name drives people into their homes to bolt their doors and close their shutters. But when he loses repeatedly to Woody, one must assume his reputation is based on his creepy silver eye, and not any actual talent for killing.

Note: His death in a fiery crash because of a lack of depth perception is the one clever thing this movie offers.

Condorman does have a couple of action set pieces that a viewer can find entertaining: the precision driving team that works for Morovich are fairly impressive, and the big finale boat chase/laser battle is kind of fun, but as this film is an action-spy comedy, it does lend itself to being compared to the Bond films—and nothing we see in Condorman compares favorably to its big brother. Then there is the problem with Michael Crawford and Barbara Carrera having absolutely no screen chemistry; in fact, she has better chemistry on screen with Oliver Reed, the jackass who actually threatened to throw her out of a helicopter to get the “proper” reaction from his co-star.

Oliver Reed is not only a notorious drunk but also a colossal dick.

The film’s major fault is that director Charles Jarrott fails to generate any kind of kinetic energy to hold the script together; not only is the pacing limpid, but the comedy element often falls flatter than a Dead Sea pancake and so it comes across as deathly dull. Kids of the early 80s may have got a kick out of the two times Woody dons the Condorman costume, but any modern kid can catch ten times that kind of thing on Netflix or even basic cable, so there is nothing in Condorman to really recommend to anybody not seeking a boost of nostalgia.

Stray Thoughts:

• When Woody takes his first flight off the Eiffel Tower he makes the classic Goofy yell of “Ya-hoo-hoo-hoo-hooey!” Was this in case we forgot we were watching a Disney flick?
• Harry makes a nice Three Days of the Condor joke, thus providing my one and only laugh during my viewing.
• After each failure, Morovich reports back to Krokov in person, but with all that travelling back and forth shouldn’t that have given Woody and Natalia time to reach safety?
• The movie ends with Woody and Natalia being offered another mission, but the film bombed and so no further missions were allowed.
• The Condorman wings require the wearer to flap his arms. This technique of flying is ludicrous and was abandoned in the early 1900s. Why the filmmakers didn’t go with the more plausible gliding method that Batman employs is a mystery.

This thing would barely pass muster at Comic-Con.

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