If OSS 117: From Africa with Love is one’s first encounter with Jean Dujardin playing the titular hero (aka Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath), one might reasonably assume this is a French James Bond spoof (in keeping with the Matt Helm and Flint movies). It is a Bond spoof, but there’s a mildly complicated history. Jean Bruce created the character, originally a CIA agent (of French descent), in a series of novels, the first published in 1949 which predated Ian Fleming’s more famous creation by four years.

A number of OSS 117 movies followed in the 50s and 60s, before the character was reinvented as a comic caricature of his former self, in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006), starring Dujardin in the lead role (echoing many of Sean Connery’s Bond mannerisms), in a period piece set in the ’50s.  A sequel, OSS 117: Lost in Rio (set in the ’60s), appeared in 2009. So, this is actually the third film of the modern (comedic) series. 

OSS 117 is France’s top agent. He is fiercely patriotic, shamelessly chauvinistic, casually racist, and not very intelligent. Somehow he successfully blunders his way through missions fuelled by innate machismo. As this film opens, it’s 1981 and Hubert is in Afghanistan, a captive of the Russians. Naturally, he makes his escape in an explosive pre-title sequence. On returning to Paris, his boss introduces the veteran spy to rookie agent, OSS 1001 (there’s been a high fatality rate among OSS agents) Serge (Pierre Niney), who regards OSS 117 as both a legend and his personal hero. What adventure is next for France’s top secret agent? A desk job, it seems. Hubert’s new “mission” involves heading the nascent OSS data processing department. This leads to a later scene in which COBOL programming features for the first (and almost certainly last) time, as a plot point in a spy movie.

Meanwhile, OSS 1001 is on a mission to an unspecified African country. His task is to support the imminent (entirely corrupt) re-election of a president who is a “friend” of France, but the rookie agent goes missing. Sacre bleu! Hubert is summoned from computer programming and sent to retrieve the situation. Naturally, he undertakes extensive research, reading Tintin in the Congo (which is famously pretty racist), on his outward flight.

Spy shenanigans (with a comic twist) ensue. Explosions happen. There’s a gorgeous femme fatale. In an early scene Hubert beds the very attractive customer service manager of the hotel where he’s staying, but experiences… um… certain performance issues. Long odds against that ever happening in a Bond film! Subsequently Hubert “rescues” OSS 1001 from prison (where he has infiltrated the rebels), blowing his cover in the process. Slowly, it dawns on Serge that his erstwhile hero, is actually an idiot. Merde!

Dujardin plays OSS 117 perfectly and has impeccable comic timing. However, this script gives him limited opportunities to truly shine. The earlier Cairo-based adventure was better executed and much funnier. Here, one is stirred to mirth, but not shaken with laughter. Perhaps this should be his final mission? Then again, maybe OSS 117: COBOL Programmer has a certain je ne sais quoi? Je pense que non.

Screening as part of French Film Festival 2021.