If Looks Could Kill (1991)
Dir. by William Dear
Starring Richard Grieco, Roger Rees and Gabrielle Anwar
Teenage slacker Michael Corbin is given a surprise on graduation day when his diploma is withheld due to an incomplete grade in French. In order to get the credit he needs to graduate, he has to accompany his French teacher on a summer trip to France. Unfortunately, he is mistaken at the airport for an American secret agent traveling under the same name, and is co-opted by MI6 into assisting with a dangerous mission. At first he goes along with it, enamored of the fast cars and spy gadgets, until he learns that being a spy might actually have real-life stakes.
I have literally zero memory of when I first saw this. I’m pretty sure it had to be a VHS rental, though we’d eventually own a copy ourselves. I grew up watching the James Bond movies, so a James Bond parody starring a teenager definitely appealed to teenage me. I actually wasn’t able to track down a DVD copy of the movie, so I eventually resorted to pulling out that old pan-and-scan VHS tape from a box in the basement and watched it on my parents’ VCR.
This film is basically White Cishet Power Trip Fantasy: The Movie. It starts with a premise that’s essentially someone’s fanfiction come to life: a teenager is mistaken for a secret agent and given access to all of the cool spy gadgets from the Bond films. And for about two thirds of the running time, Corbin behaves exactly how you’d expect a horny, straight Hollywood teenager to act in such a situation. He goofs around, acts like he knows what he’s doing, fails to take anything seriously, and survives mainly on sheer luck.
For example, Corbin engages in an action movie car chase without ever once realizing that he’s being pursued. He’s trying to lower the windshield so he can hit on the woman in a convertible driving next to him, and starts flipping switches randomly. These switches deploy the Bond car defenses, eventually blowing up the car that’s been chasing him – something he only notices once the explosion occurs. Even after that, he seems to be more upset that he blew out his tires and let the girl get away than at any property destruction or death he may have just caused.
Now, this is a problem that I could most certainly ignore while watching the movie as a teenager. But looking back at it as an adult, I was pretty constantly annoyed by Corbin’s attitude about pretty much everything for over an hour of the movie. It’s only when the movie actually finally gets to the villain’s chateau, and he faces up to the seriousness of his situation, that I found myself enjoying the character at all. The movie stops trying to be a frat house comedy with spy trappings at this point, and actually turns into a decent Bond movie pastiche, complete with one-liners, great set piece fights, and gadget-induced escapes. Unfortunately, the movie is only 88 minutes, so you have to wade through almost two thirds of the film before getting to any of the good stuff.
In addition to my problems with the Corbin character and the way he’s written, there’s also a whole lot of fairly crass sex humor. For example, there’s an extended joke about Corbin being seduced by the evil femme fatale agent (named Areola Canasta!), who’s attempting to kill him with a scorpion in bed. He doesn’t want to have sex without a condom, and spends what feels like five minutes trying to open a heavily-fortified tube of “Combat Condoms” in the bathroom. Meanwhile, the agent is stung by her own scorpion, and is writhing around on the bed moaning – sounds that Corbin mistakes for an orgasm. There’s also a fairly glaring transphobic joke involving a pair of X-ray glasses that I definitely don’t remember from the last time I watched this.
Fortunately, the movie gets redeemed somewhat by its villains. Roger Rees, whom I mostly remember from playing the Sheriff in Mel Brooks’s Robin Hood parody, is much more serious here as Augustus Steranko, the Bond villain whose plan basically amounts to…creating the Euro. But he lends a much needed gravitas to the movie, as an antidote to Corbin’s attitude. And Linda Hunt is just delightful as the henchwoman who wears a gold whip around her neck like a choker, and really really likes killing people for Steranko. I also found myself enjoying Robin Barlett’s performance as the French teacher, whose main defining characteristics at the start of the movie are hating Corbin and having unfortunate taste in headwear. She gets mistaken for a Cold War mercenary by both MI6 and the CIA (really, neither organization comes off as competent in the least), and embraces the persona by the end of the film, packing an Uzi and wearing ripped clothing as a headband, Rambo-style.
So yeah, this was nowhere near as good as I remember it being. If only the rest of the movie had been like the final 20 minutes, I might have enjoyed the rewatch a lot more. It probably deserves to be as obscure and hard to find as it is now.
-The British agent who gets killed in the movie’s version of the Bond cold open is Roger Daltrey, lead singer for The Who. I guess he really needed the extra paycheck that year.
-Corbin is supposed to be from Detroit. I’m pretty sure that every student on that class trip to France was white (or at least, I don’t remember seeing any students of color). I’ve lived in the Detroit area for over 30 years, and unless his school was in Grosse Pointe that casting is flat-out wrong.
-This movie’s so obscure now that I could only even find like half a dozen total screenshots, and no real good ones.