Talkin’ Oldies: Condorman (1981)
Given the immense interest in superhero movies over the past decade or so, it’s hard to believe that the superhero genre has only really been around since Superman in 1978. Sure, there were superheroes on screen before that (old Saturday matinee serials of the ‘40s, a big screen spin-off of Adam West’s Batman TV show in the ‘60s, the notoriously bad Rat Pfink A Boo Boo, etc.)… but Superman remains the first major superhero film in the accepted sense of the term.
Tim Burton’s 1989 re-imagining of the Batman legend would take things to darker territory, opening the door for a much more serious take on the whole superhero genre. Wedged somewhere between the fun-spirited Superman of ’78 and the serious-minded Batman of ’89 lies the largely forgotten, vastly under-rated Disney film Condorman from one-time Golden Globe-winning director Charles Jarrott.
Cartoonist Woody Wilkins (Michael Crawford) is the creator of several popular comic book heroes. His approach to his job is unorthodox to say the least – “if I can’t do it in real life, then I won’t have Condorman do it in one of my comic books!” he declares, having thrown himself from the Eiffel Tower in full superhero costume in an attempt to test the feasibility of his latest comic strip plot.
Woody gets the chance to live out his wildest fantasies when his buddy Harry (James Hampton), a low level spy at the American Embassy in Paris, asks him to deliver some papers to a contact in Istanbul. The seemingly simple task takes an intriguing turn when Woody’s contact turns out to be stunning Russian Lady spy Natalia Rambova (Barbara Carrera)… their straightforward exchange of documents almost ends in disaster when a gang of South-East Asian heavies attempt to intercept the papers, only for Woody to inadvertently save the day.
Later, Natalia announces to the CIA that she wishes to defect to the West, and specifically asks for Agent Condorman to handle the mission. Harry has to confess to the bewildered CIA bosses that Condorman is actually his cartoonist friend Woody. Before he knows it, Woody is up to his neck in adventure as he is recruited to escort Natalia across Europe, pursued every step of the way by demented KGB agent Krokov (Oliver Reed) and his lethal glass-eyed sidekick Morovich (Jean Pierre Kalfon).
On first viewing, Condorman comes across like a Bond spoof for kids, with superhero elements and iffy special effects. Indeed many critics at the time were unimpressed upon watching the film, dismissing it with negative-to-middling reviews in the press. Only on repeated viewings do the more positive characteristics come to the fore – the subtle humour, charming performances, jaunty score, eye-catching photography and tightly handled action sequences.
Michael Crawford is actually brilliant as Wilkins/Condorman, playing the role with almost imperceptible skill as a sort of hyperactive superhero version of his famous Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em alter ego Frank Spencer. Carrera provides exotic love interest, while Reed and Kalfon make for memorable villains.
The middle section of the film contains a terrific car chase which is equal to anything from the Bond movies of the time, and features hair-raising high speed driving through the narrow European lanes and villages a good 17 years before John Frankenheimer’s white knuckle chase sequences in Ronin. Other well-handled sequences include a slapstick knife fight in Istanbul, an unusual cable car sequence and a slick finalé set in and around Monte Carlo.
There are flaws with Condorman to be sure, but it’s not a disaster by any means and does not deserve to have been neglected as it has. The special effects are mediocre at best, although some of the vehicles and costumes employed by our hero in his flight across the continent are pretty cool. Parts of the dialogue are hopelessly cheesy and a few of the characters grate on the viewer somewhat (Hampton’s bumbling sidekick, for instance, and Dana Elcar’s annoying CIA boss).
Overall, though, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be gleaned from a viewing of this unfairly maligned superhero flick. In a year – indeed, a decade – of big superhero ‘event’ movies, there’s never been a more opportune time to revisit this neglected oldie.
FMV Rating ***