Condorman (1981), Lookback/Review

Long before Disney owned Marvel there was CONDORMAN!

Superman. Batman. Condorman. It just doesn’t flow right? Believe me I have tried to slip it casually into many geek conversations and it will just, never get the respect that it deserves. In Disney’s nod to Superheroes (before, that is, they owned the rights to most of the heroes that exist) the Mouse House mashed together their collective brains and came up with a hybrid protagonist in the form of Condorman. In a post-Richard Donner wave of Superman flicks that tried to prove we would believe a man could fly, Condorman is all early 80’s kitsch. Proud to say that it was the very first movie I rented on VHS as I pulled at my Dad’s near bell-bottomed denim leg in 1983 (movies took a very long time to come to the home video market back then), Condorman will always have a special place in my heart. And I have to say that after screening it again on my out-of-print DVD (no Blu-Ray yet, sorry) I was thrilled with how well it has held up some thirty-two (gulp) years later. If I blink I can clearly envision the first video store my family joined. It had all of maybe 150 movies in stock and the décor was wicker. Wicker was big in the 80’s.

Played by world-famous British actor Michael Crawford (of Phantom of the Opera, Eighties musical theatre HYSTERIA), world renowned comic-book artist and writer Woody Wilkins already leads a pretty exciting life. Crawford has a blast playing the all-American Woody (it was years before I realized he was from across the pond); he somehow captures that “ZOWIE” factor of what you imagine a comic book creator will sound like.  While his accent is not of a specific USA origin, it is indescribably American. Woody spends his time as the Stan Lee of his world with a twist; he actually tries out all of the hi-tech toys and inventions his characters use in the comics. He is like a geeky Bruce Wayne who is neither concerned with secret identities nor his own safety. In the debut issue of Condorman, Woody’s newest flagship character, the winged hero is battling the French government, so trying out the crime fighters gadgets is a must. His best pal and CIA file clerk Harry (James Hampton) is stationed in Paris where, in a memorable opening scene, Woody tries out Condorman’s wing-suit by leaping off the Eiffel Tower in broad daylight. Silly yes, but unmitigated fun and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

While Woody’s life is already pretty awesome, he dreams of his pal Harry’s CIA life of cloak and dagger. The problem is that in reality Harry is really just a boring file clerk; a glorified pencil-pusher. When Harry is finally given an actual assignment to move up in the Agency, he is called upon to find an every day, American civilian for a routine document drop in Istanbul. Beside himself with excitement over entering the world of espionage, Woody arrives in Istanbul only to meet with Russian operative Natalia Rambova( played by the comely Barbara Carrerra) acting as a regular civilian for the transaction. Woody is smitten with Natalia and, playing the supposed one-time gig to the hilt, he tells the 10+ babe that his code name is “Condorman.” As harmless a knee-jerk reaction as this seems, it sets the primary plot of the story in motion at the height of the Cold War. As the restaurant scene plays out, Woody, in a Peter Sellers-on-Coke fashion, inexplicably disarms potential assassins who are there to capture Natalia who we learn later is really a Russian spy.

Upon Natalia’s return to her KGB boss and presumed lover, the formidable and ruthless Krokov (the scenery chewing Oliver Reed) continues his hold over the woman until she decides to defect. Woody, back in Paris, is still smitten with Natalia and goes on to create “Laser Lady.” Meanwhile, Harry gets word that a Russian Agent named “The Bear” has requested the American operative known as Condorman to arrange her defection. Now with CIA resources at his disposal, a zany (yes, zany) comic book creator is given carte-blanche to BECOME Condorman.  The movie plays out just as you would expect and that is what I still love about it all these years later. This is the way DISNEY used to make kids movies before everything had to be animated, CGI or otherwise. While it was universally panned, Condorman has become something of a cult movie amongst geeks online. Many sketches of Condorman by top comic artists can be found through a simple Google search. As one user put it perfectly on the IMDB comments section: “The greatest motion picture of all-time. Hands down.” It is just one of those flicks you can watch over and over again and not get tired of watching. We all have one from our childhood and Condorman is mine.

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Shot on location in beautiful, exotic locations like Monaco, Paris and Monte Carlo, Disney spared no expense on production, despite taking a bath on the grosses. With a wonderfully campy and booming score from the legendary Henry Mancini (Peter Gunn and The Pink Panther themes) it is an astounding and sweeping dose of a chorus repeating “CONDORMAN!” over and over again. It sticks in your head like most bubblegum hits do, only for years instead of just  days. The horns in the score continue to bounce off each other in the opening like you are gearing up for a completely serious movie and therein lays the charm of Condorman; everyone besides Woody is taking this international espionage thing seriously! For Woody, he is playing out the very pages he writes and is like a kid in a toy store with his parents’ Visa Card. A professional creator bringing his toys to life on someone else’s dime is every comic book geeks secret desire. Imagine if the government came to you and said “here’s the money and the best minds in the business, now go ahead and make Spider-Man’s web shooters!” Woody makes the best costume he can, the Condor-Car, the Condor-Boat, etc. but the best part is that he is having a blast doing it. While Krokov is a scary presence for a Disney movie, Crawford’s antics more than offset that; showing the target audience the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. Condorman is pure 80’s escapism at its best and if your own little geeks have not seen it yet, get it on demand on the next snow day. You will not be sorry. In the same way Tron and some of those other late 70’s early 80’s Disney movies did, Condorman eventually found its audience on DVD. The original costume that Crawford wore in the classic has recently been showcased to die-hard fans’ delight at the San Diego Comic Con and yes I am one of them. I was that annoying guy trying to get the “perfect shot” with a camera phone. For me it was an “Ark of the Covenant” moment; a last chance to digitally capture my youth. If ever there was a Disney property that is reboot ready, Condorman is that picture.

Den of Geek Rating: 4 Out of 5 Stars