As with James Bond, the ongoing, comparatively cultish, popularity of cinematic spy Derek Flint (James Coburn) isn’t difficult to grasp, as the culture that saw the rise of these characters now strikes us as nearly alien and dream-like. Empowered by the Cold War and the questionable sexual politics of Hugh Hefner, among other things, but befuddled by the rise of civil-rights struggles for, most prominently, African-Americans and women, these cheesy softcore Caucasian power fantasias probably struck many audiences of the time as unthreateningly sexy respites from a chaotic outside world that was undergoing a terrifyingly rapid social evolution. Forty-plus years later, we’re on the other side of that revolution in which we now attempt to compensate for past atrocities of tolerance by seemingly threatening to construe any and every social breach of conduct as a potential act of hatred (there’s no greater casual crime in contemporary American society than to be “politically incorrect”), and so today the chauvinism and racism of the Bond and Flint films seem almost oddly cute, as they now invite audiences to return to a “simpler time” that obviously never existed.
Though Derek Flint’s place in pop culture is comprehensible for the aforementioned reasons, it’s jarring to revisit the films themselves and be reminded of their pronounced mediocrity. Actually, scratch that: Our Man Flint manages to (just barely) rise to a level of competency, but the follow-up, In Like Flint, is suffocatingly listless. As with the lamest entries in The Pink Panther series, or any number of over-produced, misbegotten comedies to be released in the 1960s, In Like Flint treats you to the uncomfortable spectacle of watching actors wait around for theoretical jokes to appear as huge, obviously fake sets gobble them up.
The plot is a desperate shambles even by the standards of a film that’s intended as parody, but it goes something like this: A group of gorgeous women are attempting to take over the world by brainwashing female recruits with altered hair-dryers. For reasons not entirely explicit to me, this plot involves kidnapping the president of the United States and instilling a lookalike as imposter, cryogenic freezing, publicly disgracing the head of the agency Flint used to operate for, and Russians who initially present themselves as the gorgeous ladies’ allies.
Obviously, In Like Flint is meant as a spoof of a number of prevailing concerns at the time of its making (the funniest joke manages to jam Cuba into this jumble as well), but screenwriter Hal Fimberg seems to believe that simply mentioning the Space Race, the conflict with Cuba, or the blossoming civil-rights movements qualifies as satirizing them. And whatever script does exist is killed by veteran filmmaker Gordon Douglas, who directs In Like Flint with an iron, witless hand. There are surface pleasures to be found, such as the always-underrated Coburn’s performance, Jerry Goldsmith’s justly celebrated score, the obligatory beautiful women, and the lush colors of a few of the sets (such as a series of Russian rooftops or a villain’s surprisingly erotic lair), but enjoying them requires that you wade through the film’s contextually elephantine 114-minute running time.
There’s also something shady about the chauvinism of the Flint films. The James Bond movies, particularly those featuring Sean Connery, were often sadistic and indicative of indefensible ideologies, but they at the very least had the courage of their convictions, and some of the deaths, particularly of the Bond girls, were allowed to be authentically disturbing. The Flint movies enjoy the same female ogling, the same unquestioning murders of foreigners, the same damn white-male supremacy, while hiding behind a veil of parody that’s meant to excuse them as being “progressive.” But In Like Flint is too smug and unimaginative to function as proper parody; it’s really just a half-ass Bond knock-off that mistakes poor craftsmanship for subversion. In the end, it isn’t worthy of shining the shoes of even a notorious Bond entry like Moonraker.
Certain scenes lack background clarity, which is most obvious in early office sequences sporting decidedly soft bookcases, but generally the image has been transferred with a painterly vibrancy that significantly enhances this non-fan’s enjoyment of the film. Reds and blues are rich and gorgeous, amplifying the intended homage to James Bond, and the moments set against a Russian rooftop are memorably sharp. The 5.1 DTS-HD mix is flat at times, but the 2.0 isolated score track is a terrific feature that honors the inventiveness of composer Jerry Goldsmith’s work while allowing one to tune out the mostly superfluous dialogue and diegetic noise. The isolated track, in fact, is the way to watch this film, as it allows it to become a considerably more elegant wordless essay on 1960s spy tropes and general social concerns.
The supplements are explicitly fan-centric, as they should be. One wishes that the dozen or so featurettes, most of which run about 15 minutes, had simply been condensed into one documentary, but most of them are affectionate and informative of the various stages of development evolution that led to In Like Flint. It’s particularly nice to see the underrated James Coburn get his own featurette, and "Musician’s Magician" poignantly gives composer Jerry Goldsmith a brief shout-out that includes interviews with his children. The best feature though is the affectionate, geek-friendly, encyclopedic audio commentary with film historians Lee Pfeiffer and Eddy Friedfeld.
Yes, it has an inventive score and a game James Coburn, but In Like Flint is still a lumbering, hypocritical dinosaur.