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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Condorman
Ron Miller, the president of Walt Disney Productions from 1980 to 1984, was, if nothing else, extremely persistent. He was bound and determined to steer his studio away from its wholesome, G-rated image by making films that might appeal to audiences over the age of 10. He’d tried big-budget sci-fi (The Black Hole), low-budget teen comedies (Midnight Madness) and whatever The Devil And Max Devlin had been. The one thing they all had in common was they’d all tanked at the box office.
But there were other genres that could potentially draw a grown-up crowd. Superman had proven that comic book superhero movies could be a hit with both kids and adults. And the James Bond series was still going strong after nearly 20 years even without Sean Connery. The new films starring Roger Moore had become some of the biggest money-makers of the franchise. Surely combining the two would pull in that coveted post-pubescent demographic! Right?
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Condorman’s journey to the screen began with the 1965 novel The Game Of X by the underrated Robert Sheckley, a master of satirical sci-fi stories. The Game Of X parodies the Bond series, following the adventures of a bumbling nobody who stumbles into the world of international espionage and becomes a super-spy codenamed X. It should come as no surprise that the book bears very little resemblance to the Disney film.
The screenplay was credited to Marc Stirdivant, whose only other writing credit was on a 1977 episode of Baretta. He soon transitioned to producing and worked as an assistant director on the sitcom Frasier for nearly a decade before leaving the entertainment industry and becoming an environmental advocate. Stirdivant passed away in 2019 at the age of 70.
This would be the last Disney project for British director Charles Jarrott, known to Disney aficionados for The Littlest Horse Thieves and The Last Flight Of Noah’s Ark. Jarrott made a few more theatrical features, including The Boy In Blue with Nicolas Cage, but focused primarily on TV-movies and mini-series for the rest of his career. He was 83 when he died in 2011.
I’m not entirely sure who had the idea to graft the comic book/superhero elements onto Sheckley’s book but, if I had to guess, my money would be on Ron Miller. It’s not that they feel out of place necessarily (although we’ll get into all that). But it is extremely clear that they’re only included in a somewhat misguided attempt to give Disney their own costumed superhero. In a weird way, that makes Condorman slightly ahead of its time. The success of Superman notwithstanding, comic book properties weren’t the hot commodities in 1981 that they are today. Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk had done well on television. But at the time, the number of failed and unmade superhero projects far outnumbered the hits. A big-budget superhero movie based on an original character nobody had ever heard of was a considerable gamble.
Star Michael Crawford was also far from being a household name, at least in America. Like former Disney stars Tommy Steele of The Happiest Millionaire and Robert Morse of The Boatniks, Crawford made his biggest mark on the stage. He’d made several films with Richard Lester in the 1960s that had been big hits in the UK, including The Knack…And How To Get It and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. His movie career derailed a bit after costarring in the musical flop Hello, Dolly! But he made a comeback in the UK on the megapopular sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Condorman was Crawford’s first film in nearly a decade and it would be his last for a while. He’d spend the rest of the 1980s in back-to-back musical theatre smashes, playing the title roles in Barnum and The Phantom Of The Opera.
Crawford stars as Woody Wilkins, an American comic book artist staying in Paris with his friend Harry Oslo (James Hampton, last seen in The Cat From Outer Space). Like virtually no other comic book creators I’m familiar with, Woody is a stickler for realism and refuses to include anything in his comics that couldn’t work in real life. Imagine if Stan Lee had worked this way. He’d have been killed about 20 minutes after coming up with the idea for Fantastic Four.
Anyway, this utterly bizarre character trait is meant to explain why we first see Woody decked out in a bird costume with elaborate mechanical wings about to leap off the Eiffel Tower. The wings don’t exactly work, although they help prevent him from splattering across the French sidewalk, so I guess the test is kind of a success. But Woody isn’t satisfied, especially with an impending deadline for the first issue of Condorman. (Among its many, many other plot holes and lapses in logic, the film has a very strange idea about how publishing schedules work.)
Harry goes off to his day job as a file clerk for the CIA. His boss, Russ Devlin (Dana Elcar from The Last Flight Of Noah’s Ark), tasks him with finding a civilian to deliver some papers to a KGB contact in Istanbul. The papers are evidently not important and the Russians are also supposed to be sending a civilian. The whole thing seems to just be an exercise in wheel spinning far beneath the attention of anyone who matters.
Naturally, Harry asks Woody to go to Istanbul and, naturally, Woody takes the assignment far too seriously. Decked out in a trenchcoat with a briefcase shackled to his wrist, he makes contact with Natalia Rambova (Barbara Carrera, soon to meet up with the real James Bond in the faux Bond picture Never Say Never Again). Rather than confirming that he’s a civilian, Woody claims to be a secret agent codenamed Condorman. When they’re attacked, Woody defeats the assailants through sheer dumb luck. Nevertheless, it’s enough to convince Natalia that he’s the real deal.
It turns out that Natalia really is a KGB Agent codenamed The Bear. Back in Moscow, she’s confronted by her handler, Krokov (Oliver Reed, who spends the entire movie looking as though some poor production assistant just had to rouse him from a nap). Krokov is unhappy with the way things went down in Istanbul and informs Natalia that she’s being sent off for “re-education”. Not wanting to be shuttled off to Siberia, Natalia is finally inspired to defect.
Meanwhile, Woody has gone back to work, creating a new character inspired by Natalia named Laser Lady. Devlin learns about his trip to Istanbul when he receives word that The Bear wants to defect but will only work with Condorman. Woody is less eager to return to the field but changes his tune when he hears who has requested his services. His only condition is a fairly major one. He wants the full resources of the CIA to bring his designs for gadgets, weapons and vehicles to life. Somehow, this is not a deal-breaker.
Woody and Natalia meet again in Yugoslavia where they attempt to escape disguised as gypsies. But Krokov is through playing games. He has sent his best man, a glass-eyed super-assassin named Morovich (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), to eliminate Condorman. Morovich pursues them with a team of black death Porsches but Woody manages to shake them, thanks to his souped-up, CIA-built Condormobile.
Unable to lay hands on them the old-fashioned way, Krokov switches tactics. He spreads disinformation framing Woody and Natalia for a murder in Belgium. While they’re cooling their heels in jail, a disguised Harry comes to the rescue, posing as a Belgian police inspector. After another narrow escape, the trio end up at a chalet in the Alps. When Natalia goes for a walk, the local children all stop and stare. They’re big fans of Laser Lady, the character Woody literally just created and has somehow already been published, distributed, translated into French and built a devoted European fanbase. Harry decides it’s time to tell her the whole story. Still, Natalia continues to entrust her life to an eccentric comic book artist and his desk jockey buddy.
She has yet another reason to regret this choice soon enough. The next day, they attempt to cross the mountains by hooking a jet-propelled T-bar contraption to a cable. Why this would be considered better than simply taking the regular ski lift to the top of the mountain is beyond me. It certainly isn’t safer, since Woody and Harry are sitting ducks for Morovich, posted at the top with a rifle. Fortunately for them, he doesn’t simply shoot them both in the head. He aims for the contraption instead. Woody and Harry plummet to the ground, landing safely in the snow, while Natalia is captured by Krokov and whisked off to Monte Carlo.
Krokov is not in Monte Carlo for the Trans-France road race, although at this point, an appearance by Herbie, Dean Jones and Don Knotts would be a welcome distraction. He’s there to…um…well, honestly, I’m not sure. He’s hosting a party for a bunch of oil sheiks and I guess he’s trying to bilk them for money or to seize control of their oil production for Mother Russia or something. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that there are oil sheiks involved, which allows Woody and Harry to disguise themselves as Arabs to infiltrate the party and rescue Natalia. This they then do.
While Harry creates a distraction (and presumably a few casualties) by setting off some massive explosions, Woody and Natalia make their way to the roof where he sheds his disguise and reveals a fully-operational, CIA-approved Condorman suit. They fly to safety with Krokov and Morovich in hot pursuit. Woody and Natalia reunite with Harry at a pier and take off in a waiting Condorboat. There’s an inevitable high-speed water chase that culminates with the heroes eluding the bad guys thanks to a last-minute airlift courtesy of the CIA. Back in the USA, Woody, Natalia and Harry relax at a Dodgers game until Harry gets a call from Devlin, observing them with the head of the Agency from the Goodyear blimp. They want Condorman back in action. Fortunately, the rest of the world disagreed and we were spared Condorman II.
Condorman is the type of movie that feels plenty dumb while you’re watching it and only gets stupider the more you think about it. Then again, most people aren’t writing essays about it and therefore, do not think about it for a single second after the credits have rolled. Trust me, you’re better off.
The James Bond movies had been prime targets for parody since the 1960s, resulting in a whole cycle of Bondsploitation knock-offs. But by 1981, the joke’s freshness had long since worn off. It didn’t help that the Bond movies themselves had fully embraced their own absurdity, devolving into self-parody with movies like Moonraker. The actual 1981 entry in the franchise, the underrated For Your Eyes Only, attempted a bit of a course correction but there’s no way the makers of Condorman would have known that. It’s hard to make fun of something that’s already actively making fun of itself.
Condorman might have worked a bit better if it had leaned harder into its superhero elements. But Woody only goes full Condorman twice at the very beginning and very end. Even The Incredible Hulk tried to cram a minimum of two Hulk-outs into each 47-minute episode. Condorman never fully commits to being a superhero movie and, as a result, leaves a lot of unexplored comic book tropes on the table.
Considering the dodgy special effects, perhaps that’s for the best. Condorman employed Colin Chilvers, a member of the Oscar-winning team behind Superman. But if Superman made you believe a man could fly, Condorman crushed that belief beneath its bright yellow boot heel. Chilvers knew his stuff, so I place the blame on Charles Jarrott’s inability to properly direct the visual effects sequences.
The movie is on somewhat sturdier ground with its high-speed chase sequences. These stunts were coordinated by Rémy Julienne, a veteran of the Bond pictures and movies like The Italian Job and Bobby Deerfield. They’re impressive but here again, Jarrott’s direction fails to capture the kinetic energy of the chase. There’s also a tendency these days to overpraise this kind of practical stunt work. The move toward CGI has created a world where practical stunts are considered noteworthy simply by existing. But in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, we could see chases and car crashes several times a week just by tuning in to shows like The Dukes Of Hazzard and Starsky And Hutch. Don’t get me wrong, Julienne was a great stunt driver and I’ll always take practical stunts and effects over their CGI equivalent any day. But Condorman does not necessarily represent Julienne’s A-game.
Condorman soared into theatres on August 7, 1981 and plummeted back to Earth almost immediately. (The top-grossing movie at the box office that weekend was evidently the horror parody Student Bodies, written and directed by Mickey Rose, a former collaborator of Woody Allen and, according to IMDb, an uncredited contributor to the screenplay for Condorman. I tend to take IMDb’s “uncredited” information with a grain of salt but if it’s true then, hey, a good weekend for Mickey Rose.) Once again, audiences failed to turn out for a PG-rated Disney movie and critics were nearly unanimous in their contempt.
Even so, Condorman has picked up a bit of a cult following despite its flaws (or possibly because of them…we Gen-Xers are weird like that). It certainly hasn’t lingered in the public consciousness but the film persists, primarily as a deep-cut reference for hardcore Disney-heads. In 2011, the character made a cameo in the very funny Toy Story short Small Fry, reduced to a forgotten fast food giveaway. Small Fry is available to stream on Disney+. Condorman itself is not.
I give Ron Miller and the 1980s Disney team a lot of credit (arguably too much credit) for taking chances on oddball material like Condorman. But the movie itself proved to be another dead end for the studio, losing money and failing to reinvent Disney’s struggling image. Decades later, the studio would give superheroes another shot. But this time, instead of trying to create one from scratch, they’d simply go out and buy a pre-existing universe.
VERDICT: Disney Minus
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