Staff Pick

Spies Like Us Turned the Cold War Into Hot Comedy

By Nick Nadel

This Dan Aykroyd-Chevy Chase road movie almost sparked a real-life international incident.

Perhaps due to its plot being rooted in the Cold War politics of the mid-1980s, Spies Like Us rarely gets discussed in the context of classic comedies from the Reagan decade. Which is a shame, because the dynamite pairing of Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase (ably led by ace comedy director John Landis) puts Spies Like Us on par with other beloved military-themed spoofs of the era like Stripes and Top Secret!.

Aykroyd initially wrote Spies Like Us with SCTV’s Dave Thomas as a post-Blues Brothers vehicle for himself and John Belushi. But after Belushi’s death, the script was retooled by Aykroyd and Splash scribes Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel as an homage to the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road To... movies. (Hope returned the favor by popping in for a golfing gag.) Chevy Chase stepped in as Emmett Fitz-Hume, a classic Chase-ian ne'er-do-well who’s as quick with snarky one-liners as he is with flirty banter.

Fitz-Hume and by-the-numbers code breaker Austin Millbarge (Aykroyd) are low-level government cogs unknowingly sent into Soviet territory as decoy spies. Comedic mayhem ensues, with the mismatched pair posing as medics in a rebel encampment (leading to an extended “doctor, doctor” bit that’s worthy of classic Marx Brothers), teaming up with an actual spy (Donna Dixon, Aykroyd’s real-life wife) and disguising themselves as aliens in order to take down a group of armed Soviets.

Aykroyd’s rat-tat-tat comic rhythms meld nicely with Chase’s smooth charm and brings back fond memories of their Saturday Night Live days. Working from a script that leans towards the decidedly wacky (Fitz-Hume and Millbarge face off against ninjas during basic training), Landis executes some hilarious action sequences that call to mind the classic parade riot the filmmaker staged in Animal House. Add to that his penchant for casting fellow directors in amusing cameos makes Spies Like Us extra fun for film geeks. Look for Muppet legend Frank Oz as the test monitor in the amusing scene where Fitz-Hume and Millbarge take the foreign service exam, and up-and-coming filmmakers Sam Raimi and Joel Coen as the guards at the drive-in that doubles as a secret U.S. government facility. (Terry Gilliam, stop-motion effects wizard Ray Harryhausen and music legend B.B. King are just a few of the film’s many Easter egg cameos.) Paul McCartney’s catchy closing theme song, which sounds like the legendary musician channeling Talking Heads, rounds out the film for a rollicking good time.

With the ‘80s currently in vogue both culturally and politically, the era’s Cold War-themed comedies feel particularly relevant. Adding fact to fiction, the goofy proceedings got a little too real when filming in Norway nearly caused an international incident. As Aykroyd revealed, the movie’s replica SS20 rocket was spotted by a Department of Defense satellite, causing producers to explain to the United States government that a Soviet rocket hadn’t actually been moved into Norway. In our fraught times, it’s oddly comforting to remember the days when nuclear war could be averted by Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd decked out in silly costumes.