REVIEW: Get Smart (2008)

The Get Smart television series made its debut on NBC in 1965, about a year before the premiere of Star Trek on the same network. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that the new movie version of Get Smart has made its debut about a year before the premiere of the new movie version of Star Trek.

Call me old-fashioned, but my three favorite TV series aired most of their new episodes in the 1960s. Get Smart fits snugly into that third spot for me, right after Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. I was born in the mid-1970s, so I have only known these shows in reruns. (My fourth favorite series, however, breaks that 1960s convention. It is Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman from the 1990s.)

This year, I have started making my way through the Get Smart series on DVD. I am in the middle of the second season right now, relishing each episode. It is great watching them in sequence, and hearing Barbara Feldon (Agent 99) introducing each one.

With Star Trek bumped until next year, Get Smart was my most anticipated movie of the year. Would I be disappointed?

Much like 2009’s Star Trek, 2008’s Get Smart faces the obstacle of audience reluctance to accept new actors in iconic roles. Who else but Don Adams could play Agent 86, Maxwell Smart? Who else but Barbara Feldon could play Agent 99? Who else but Edward Platt could play the Chief?

Another potential strike against the film is the history of attempted Get Smart revivals. After the series was cancelled in 1970, Don Adams returned as Agent 86 in The Nude Bomb, which was released to theaters in 1980 but poorly received. Notably, Agent 99 never appeared or even received a mention in the movie.

A 1989 TV-movie, Get Smart, Again, fared better and reunited the surviving cast, including Adams and Feldon. In 1995, FOX aired a new sequel series, Get Smart, which also featured both Adams and Feldon, with Smart now the Chief of CONTROL. The series also featured Andy Dick in an uninspired performance as 86 and 99’s son, Zachary. The low-rated series lasted only seven episodes.

Now it is 2008 and Get Smart is back in theaters again. Steve Carell, who generally I have found overrated in previous projects, stars as Maxwell Smart. Anne Hathaway, who generally I have found underrated in previous projects, co-stars as Agent 99.

There are really only three key questions to address in reviewing this movie.

1.) Does the re-casting work?

The re-casting works, absolutely. Steve Carell is Maxwell Smart. I believed it from the moment he first appeared on screen until the very end of the movie. Carell makes brilliant choices throughout the film in portraying the character. Most importantly, he is not imitating the legendary Don Adams. Had he made this mistake, the Get Smart movie would have merely been a spoof of itself, aping the TV series that supposedly inspired it. Think Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard, or most other recent film adaptations of classic TV series. Carell’s performance is the main reason why Get Smart does not fall into this trap. If Carell had tried to imitate Adams, I would have hated this movie.

Meanwhile, Anne Hathaway proves that she can not only handle comedy, as expected, but that she is also a kick-butt action hero at heart. Hathaway’s performance may in fact be the best of the entire movie, reminiscent of Rene Russo in Lethal Weapon 3.

Alan Arkin appears as the Chief and brings the same sort of effective counter-balance to Carell’s antics that Platt brought to those of Adams. The father/son-like relationship between the two characters survives the transition to the big screen as well.

2.) Is the movie good?

Get Smart is not a good movie, it is a great one. From the instant it begins until the credits roll, it is non-stop action and comedy that rarely takes a breather. I was expecting a movie like this to drag at times, or, worse, to have revealed all of the best moments in the previews, but it turned out even better than I ever hoped.

When KAOS, the international organization of evil, takes out nearly all of the agents of CONTROL, the international organization for good, the Chief is forced to promote one of his favorite but bumbling analysts, Maxwell Smart, to agent status. The newly named Agent 86 teams up with veteran Agent 99 and together they must unravel the KAOS plan to strike the United States. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson turns in an effective and typically charismatic performance as Agent 23, one of the few survivors.

Most of all, the movie is non-stop fun. That’s what I’m looking for in a movie like Get Smart.

3.) Does it feel like Get Smart?

Most of the time, Get Smart indeed feels like an updated version of the TV series. Over forty years have passed and society has changed in many ways, though. Certain things are bound to feel different. One of the main changes is in the relationship between Agents 86 and 99.

On the TV series, the sexual chemistry between the two characters was instant but understated. In early seasons, Max even seems totally oblivious to 99’s subtle affections. In the movie, there is an instant sexual tension between the two, but this time it is Max who quickly falls for the aloof 99. The turnabout works, but definitely feels different from the series.

There are also some great nods to the TV series in this film, none of which I will give away here. Some are subtle while others are obvious. All are in great taste and do not take away from the film at hand.

* * *

Nothing will ever replace the TV series, but the new Get Smart movie serves up two hours of entertainment that complement the show. My suggestion is to go in without pre-determined expectations of what a Get Smart movie “must” be. Just go in to watch a fun movie and you won’t be disappointed.

Story: 8 (out of 10)
Performances: 10
Visual Style: 9
Effects: 8
Music: 9
Overall: 9