Monday, April 26, 2010

Get Smart -- ambition and ability, control and chaos

Director: Peter Seagal, 2008. (PG-13)

The 1960s brought James Bond to the silver screen, as a suave and sexy secret agent. Picking up on the success of that franchise, NBC created the thrilling spy series, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." A couple of years later the same TV company aired a spoof of these action adventure heroes: "Get Smart" starring Don Adams as Maxwell Smart. Seagal has translated this TV series to a full-length feature, updating it to the current era of cell phones and portable nuclear bombs while retaining some of the devices from the original, such as the shoe phone. In doing so, he has created a smart and funny film that has lots of slapstick comedy and just a little crude humor.

True to the original, Maxwell Smart (Steve Carrell, Dan in Real Life) is an analyst for CONTROL, a secret Government spy agency thought shut down. But what better place to hide a secret department than in a museum that highlights the "former" agency itself. He is terrific in his job, producing the best analysis of any HQ worker. But he pines for the life of a field operative, with danger and death as ever-present sidekicks. The Chief (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine), though, won't hear of it. Smart is too smart, and too good at his job to be released into the field. Even when Smart scores high enough on the field operative test to be considered for a numbered agent's job, he is not promoted to that role. He is denied his ambition.

Maxwell Smart exemplifies the struggle of ambition and ability. He is a klutz and really unsuited for field work, despite his test score. His ambition is to be in the field, but his ability puts him behind a desk. How many of us desire to be doing something else, something that we are in reality unfit for? There is an allure for more glamorous work. It may be the call of the professional athlete for the person who played college ball but never got drafted. Perhaps it is the desire to be a VP or CEO while a middle-manager. It could be the dizzying appeal of acting on the other side of the camera when you are a grip or cameraman. Whatever it is, if you are good at your job perhaps that is where you are meant to be. God has given each of us talents and abilities (1 Cor. 12:11). And although we can grow and develop our skills, moving into areas that are not our strengths, and may be our weaknesses, is often a recipe for disaster . . . as is almost the case for Maxwell Smart.

When the headquarters of CONTROL is destroyed by KAOS, their arch-enemy organization, and most of the field operatives are compromised or killed, few agents are left to combat KAOS' deadly plan. The Chief has to promote Smart to become Field Agent 86, partnered with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married). She has the practical experience and wisdom, he has the head-knowledge and impractical ineptness. Although he got an A- on the field operative's test, better than her score, she points out that in the field you are either dead or not dead. There is no grading on the curve or other ways of scoring.

CONTROL vs KAOS reminds us of the innate desire of humanity for control as opposed to living in a state of disorder and indeterminism. We want to be independent, in charge of our own destiny. We bristle when others are in control, able to order us around. Yet how much control do we really have? Even when we think we are calling the shots, God is still sovereign, the ruler sitting on his throne in heaven (Dan. 5:21, Psa. 110). We are mere mortals, fooling ourselves.

One of the pleasures of Get Smart is the comedic acting of Carrell. A fine straight man, here he is straighter than an arrow and the butt of many of the jokes, a sympathetic spy. He has excellent chemistry with Hathaway. And even Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson pitches an acceptable performance as Agent 23, a field operative relegated to analysis.

The storyline itself is solid enough and plays out fast enough for the audience to miss the holes. And like any good spy adventure, the action moves from continent to continent until it arrives at the climax where the US President (James Caan) is in unknown danger. What makes this fun is the use of low-end spy toys, like the exploding dental floss and the multifunction pocket-knife with concealed flame thrower and crossbow.

The tagline describes the movie's theme and Smart's role: "saving the world . . . with difficulty." His desire to work in the field was to save the world. In real-life, that is Jesus' role. He has saved the world with difficulty. That difficulty was his death on the cross (Phil. 2:8). God chose to come down and be a field operative, working and walking in the world he had made (Phil. 2:7). Perfect at creation and under control, sin had entered the garden (Gen. 3) and chaos and disorder ensued. The only way to save it and ensure a future restoration was to absorb the punishment for sin in his own body and die for us (Rom. 5:8). Unlike Smart, Jesus' ambition did not exceed his ability!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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