(What Did I Just Watch is a regular feature in every issue where we review movies that astound and confound us.)
Did you ever watch a movie that made you angry?
In my time some movies perplexed me. Some confused me. Some bored me to tears. Some even offended me.
But the Donald Sutherland/Elliott Gould movie SPYS (1974) – which sometimes appears as S*P*Y*S in a deliberate M*A*S*H (1970) cash-in – made me livid.
I mean full-on livid. I shouted for a good while after it finished, and stomped up and down the hall after that.
I can achieve a lot in an hour and 26 minutes – for starters, my kitchen contains a fair amount of dirty dishes, the summer sun sits high in the sky outside my flat, the Hoover awaits my attention, and my friends think I joined the witness protection program.
I could even enroll in an evening course if the mood took me.
Instead, I watched an unfunny, chaotic, ill-conceived, and ridiculous attempt to duplicate the charm, on-screen chemistry, and runaway success of the aforementioned Robert Altman vehicle.
Now, I love M*A*S*H.
When people ask me to name my favorite Altman film I always say Nashville (1975), partly because it doesn’t contain a single wasted second, but also because I consider M*A*S*H to exist in its own category of one and in comparison with none.
To my mind, M*A*S*H stands as Altman’s masterpiece, kick-started my obsession with the original novels, made me fall madly in love with Donald Sutherland (I still would), and convinced me – like everyone else – that I should watch another Sutherland/Gould movie.
So I did.
I conceived What Did I Just Watch? about 2 years ago for a magazine series as a comic aside – I would cast fresh eyes over a famous so bad its good film… As I stomped up and down the hallway my partner asked me to sum SPYS up in about 30 seconds.
“There’s two chases, one explosion, a church scuffle, four shoot-outs, and they end up with nothing,” I screamed.
“Is that it?” he replied.
“Pretty much,” I answered. “Oh, and there’s a dog. But… yeah. That’s it really.”
He asked me to expand on the plot because every movie has a plot, right? I took a deep breath, exhaled, and began.
“Ok. So Sutherland is this really straight-laced, by the book FBI agent, and he gets waylaid by Elliott Gould. Gould is another agent but he’s more a stoner hippie type. And he loosens Sutherland up, they go renegade on the road after they meet up with Sutherland’s crash pad woman, and they turn into buddies or whatever, and Sutherland has a motorcycle… wait.”
Just hold on a damn minute.
Did I just describe the entire plot of Flashback, the 1990 movie which starred Kiefer “son of Donald” Sutherland as a straight-laced by the book FBI agent who gets waylaid by Dennis Hopper’s hippie stoner type before they become friends and Kiefer rides off on a motorcycle? Did that just happen?
Flashback is a great film. It’s sweet and funny and nostalgic. SPYS is awful.
Donald Sutherland earned notoriety for making some truly terrible films, but Elliott Gould really should have known better. As it happens, they never made another film together again.
Inexplicably, SPYS took over $4 million dollars at the box office and even more inexplicably it was released on DVD in 2014 because shit always looks better in high definition.
Go rent Flashback (or M*A*S*H, or Nashville) – and avoid SPYS at all costs.
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