ITV2’s Action Team and cinematic spy spoofs

Is there life left in the action comedy spoof? Matt sees how ITV2's Action Team, starting tonight, measures up...

For almost as long as action heroes have donned vests and duffed up scheming evil doers, there have been comedians sending them up for it. From The Naked Gun to Hot Fuzz, action films have served as the inspiration behind some of the cinemas funniest comedies.

There’s something inherently ridiculous about action films. Elevating masculinity and chaotic violence to obscene levels all while keeping a straight face is silly. How many times have we seen a hyper-muscled, wise-cracking tough nut, covered in grease and without a shirt, grappling with any man who gets in his way? Take the third Rambo film, a movie full of ultra-violence courtesy of the outrageous arsenal of its lone wolf protagonist, and one that demands to be made fun of. Where First Blood part III exists, Hot Shot part Deux is an inevitability.

That isn’t to undercut how enjoyable action films are. To recognise that they’re silly isn’t to deny how much fun we have watching them. Writer/director Shane Black creates action movies that are self aware yet also function as perfectly enjoyable action fare, such as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. Meanwhile, filmmaking team Nevaldine and Taylor used the Crank series to take action cinema to ludicrously silly yet riotously enjoyable extremes.

Den of Geek favourites Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg put their own spin on the action cinema spoof by relocating well worn tropes to the English countryside, where high-octane car chases would have to contend with errant swans. Hot Fuzz worked spectacularly well, partly because it’s so slick and precise and partly because it’s steeped in recognisable action movie traditions. Star and co-writer Pegg is also a franchise regular in the action series Mission: Impossible, while director and co-writer Wright recently directed the action heavy pulp heist thriller Baby Driver.

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The Naked Gun found ground to lampoon action movies by trading out the ultra-capable protagonists for bumbling detective Frank Drebin, played to perfection by Leslie Nielson. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry may have left a trail of destruction as he caught up with the bad guys and plugged them full of lead, but Nielson’s Drebin could match him for chaos simply by forgetting to apply the handbrake in his car.

From The Pink Panther to National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 to MacGruber, fiddling with the foibles of action cinema is seemingly irresistible to comedians.

Perhaps the most common action parody is the spy movie spoof. The glamourous and instantly recognisable world of James Bond has been subject to ribbing from just about everyone, from sketch shows like That Mitchell and Webb Look to television advertisements (like the Rowan Atkinson Barclaycard ads that served as a precursor to the Johnny English spoof series).

Paul Feig’s excellent Spy, much like Hot Fuzz, struck an effective balance between enjoyable action film and hilarious send-up. Like The Naked Gun, it places an unlikely protagonist in the place of the traditional hero. However, Melissa McCarthy’s meek-but-capable lead is tracked by a more traditional spy hero, bumbling bragger Rick Ford (played by the swoon-inducing Jason Statham) who appears to be furious that he’s not the star of the film. Statham’s turn was a massive highlight, in part because of the performance (which surely marked himself as the obvious choice for the inevitable Naked Gun reboot) and the material, but also because Statham was sending up the kind of films he’s dedicated his career to making. Essentially, it’s fine to make fun of the films we love so long as we can tell that you love them too.  

ITV2’s Action Team is a new sitcom aimed at prodding the ribs of action cinema and spy films. But, with the ground already so well trodden, are there any laughs left to be had with the spy spoof?

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The show is written by James De Frond (who also directs) and Tom Davis (who also stars), the pair behind Murder In Successville. Den of Geek has seen the just the first four of this six episode run, but based on those four, Frond and Davis have found plenty for us to laugh at in their big but decidedly not clever spin on spy cinema.

Davis stars as Logan, an agent for MI6 who specialises in smug asides and collateral damage. Logan leads the action team, a small operation engaged in a high stakes battle of wits with supervillain Vladimir Shevchenko (“Such a Russian baddie name!”), also played by Davis.

Davis’ dual roles helpfully sign post a key influence for Action Team; that’d be Mike Meyers’ Austin Powers series, albeit without the time hopping. It takes a similar tone, has a dedication to a similar brand of silliness and even offers us insight into the personal lives of supervillains’ henchmen (a romantic tiff between two is the highlight of the first four episodes).

Logan fits into the The Naked Gun and Spy category of daft hero bungling their way through serious spy situations. That may be delaying a covert rendezvous over a cheese toastie or struggling with performance anxiety after realising a romantic liaison with a duplicitous femme fatale is subject to heavy surveillance and will be seen by everybody back at the office. Davis’ performance is well judged, as he loads Logan with unearned confidence and swagger.

Martial arts and weapons expert Monica (Laura Checkley), on the other hand, is entirely competent, although lacks the social poise traditionally associated with spies. Whether expressing her frustration at a slow computer process with an incredibly relatable “Ah, come on you fucker!” or utilising unconventional methods to draw information from a pilled-up clown on a comedown, Monica is an unrefined and bawdy character in a role usually reserved for the reserved.

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Jim Howick plays Graham, a sniper with little to say for himself. The last time we saw Howick on ITV he was playing an absolute bastard in the third series of Broadchurch. Had his top lip been adorned with a similarly prominent moustache in Broadchurch, his character would somehow have proven even more creepy.

Action Team is able to mine laughs from such a well explored genre by pushing boundaries and innovating. Some of the jokes are very crass, very immature and, of course, very funny. Having work experience kid Huxley (Kayode Ewumi) take on key roles in undercover missions is inventive and pays dividends.

There are, unfortunately, a few signs that the Action Team team have struggled to find quite enough new material. After the first two episodes there’s a feeling of losing steam. Or perhaps the issue is that episodes are overloaded. With four team members to service with material, the show also tries to cram in a lot of plot, all while attempting to serialise the story and play with genre conventions, and in 25 minute episodes it ends up feeling like many elements and characters are short changed. They’ve got the excellent Vicky McClure in there, for example, yet she doesn’t seem to have anything to do. Then there’s a plot involving a mole in MI6 which seems half baked and clumsy (although we’re half expecting it to take a massive turn in the last two episodes).

Of course, with two episodes left the show could yet pull it all together. After all, the first two episodes in particular show that Action Team is funny. There’s a lot of work that’s been done to set up series end pay offs, so should they turn out to be rewarding, and there’s no reason to suspect they shouldn’t be, then they may have proven that there’s still plenty of life in the action spoof yet.

Action Team starts on Monday the 5th of March at 10pm on ITV2.