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EMPIRE ESSAY: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me Review

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Dr. Evil is back...and has invented a new time machine that allows him to go back to the 60's and steal Austin Powers's mojo, inadvertently leaving him "shagless".

★★★★

That Mike Myers is a. comedy genius is set. He can gauge a moment perfectly. Take the first teaser trailer for The Spy Who Shagged Me (a better title than it first appears), released at the height of the Phantom Menace summer. There's a long drawn out zoom up a forbidding looking spaceship as a voice-over warns of the return of an ancient evil empire. At last we reach the back of a futuristic throne, it spins round to reveal... Dr. Evil! "Expecting someone else?" he sneers, pinky to lip. The gag has already landed, but Myers gives it an extra gear as the voice over then declares: "If you're going to see one movie this summer, see... Star Wars! If you're going to see two, see Austin Powers." Self-deprecating, culturally aware, damn funny. The second adventure of the groovetastic spy was a watershed film in box office terms. In America alone it quadrupled the gross of its original, completely demolishing the sequels' law of diminishing returns. The modestly successful International Man Of Mystery had found a new lease of life on video and the marketing of Part II cracked it. Powers was now a major comedy franchise.

Its melding of puerile schoolboy naughtiness (Powers imbibes from a jar of steaming stool sample) with smarty-pants cultural referencing (we get Dr. Evil on Jerry Springer) is heightened with director Roach's growing confidence. The touchstones are more than just the immediate Bond parody, everything from Matt Helm to A Hard Day's Night to In Like Flint to Dr. Strangelove and Antonioni's Blow-Up are covered in a lavish, day-glo lovesong to 60s tastelessness. "The movie isn't about the 60s," said Myers, "it's about straight culture's view of the 60s." And while obsessed with sex, the film is more randy than lewd, draped in an inoffensive silliness and Heather Graham's miraculous hot pants. Powers, himself, is the perfect alter-ego for any shy comedian: loud, sexually confident, charming and, above all, funny.

The naturally warm Myers adds a lovely self-effacing spirit, with moments of poignant disappointment when the world proves not as "shagadelic" as it should. And given his Mojo (sex drive) has been stolen by his time-travelling nemesis in 1969, this is an ail-too frequent distress. Dr. Evil is one of the great modern comic creations. Myers seems to have more room to stretch the pastiche here — he's Blofeld crossed with Woody Allen, the world's only camp, existential despot. There's a touching sensitivity to his plaintive cries for understanding: "Throw me a frickin' bone here people!" He seems constantly caught out of time (mostly literally), unable to gauge inflation rates, trapped forever within the precepts of being a classic 60s spy movie villain despite the protestations of his modish love child Scott Evil (Seth Green): "If you've got a time machine, why don't you just go back and kill Austin Powers when he's sitting on the crapper or something?"

All of this explores a Sellers-like ability to lose himself in a character — we are never caught watching Mike Myers play a role (as we would Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin or Will Smith), this is Austin Powers, this is Dr. Evil. He does overreach: Fat Bastard (utilising the comedian's beloved Scottish accent) is patently unfunny, a gross-out gag without mileage, but Myers, who co-writes (with Michael McCullers) and produces, is shaping up to be as good a shapeshifter as Peter Cook, Sellars, or the Monty Python heroes of his Anglicised youth.

But it's no solo show. The supporting cast shines with self-parody and absurdity. Rob Lowe's mannerisms-and-all turn as a young Robert Wagner is pitch perfect, Green continues his dysfunctional exasperation as Scott and the tiny Verne Troyer (2 ft 8 in) as Mini-Me, an eighth sized clone of Dr. Evil, is the best sustained dwarf gag in the history of all dwarf gags.

As much as it is a film about ripe dynamics, exaggerated performance and spoof-style referencing, the script reveals how erudite Myers is. There is a yearning for 60s' liberalism, a testiness with corporate capitalism (Starbucks is manfully ridiculed) and an almost poetic flow to Power's hormonally-charged lingo ("Groovy baby", "Shagadelic",The foxy trot."Oh, behave"). And Evil plays like a tortured artiste. He breaks into song, chastises with florid samplings of pop-talk ("Don't mess with me. I'm one crazy mo fo."), and a sadly cut-scene (available on the DVD) features an impassioned whirl through his secret past ("I once spent a night in a horse... quite roomy. On second thought, that was the Ritz.").

Powers is with us for a while at least. Myers has a sneaky notion of level-pegging with new Bond releases, hatching an idea for a third that will involve a flashback to Evil and Powers' public school days. And like the movies it teases, it is the familiarity that will beckon us back.

Better than the original? You bet.