In the mid-1960s, the James Bond series had already become a major force at the international box office. People were salivating at the idea of more spy-like adventure movies with impressive stunt work, lavish locales, and beautiful women. French director Philippe de Broca was also eager to exploit this demand and set out to make a similar movie. It proved to be much less like a Bond movie, though, and much more its own thing: an adventure comedy that would mix slapstick antics with legitimately dangerous stunt work and a narrative that moves so quickly, you won’t have any time to realize it doesn’t make much sense.
This, friends, is That Man from Rio.
You probably haven’t heard of this film — or if you have, it’s probably from the recent 2K restoration – -but it has been incredibly influential to artists such as Jackie Chan and Steven Spielberg. That Man from Rio is part bawdy comedy, part silent movie-esque runaround, part treasure hunt, and part travelogue. It’s an enjoyable movie to watch, and while it does go on a bit long, the action shifts and changes enough to make things not linger. The fact that it stars Jean-Paul Belmondo, one of the most charismatic stars of the French New Wave, proving he can do physical comedy and action as good as anyone, just makes the proceedings all the more enjoyable.
The story begins with Belmondo as Adrien Dufourquet, an airman on an 8-day leave back to Paris. He is *ahem* very eager to be reunited with his fiancee, Agnès (Françoise Dorléac, the sister of actress Catherine Deneuve). Agnès is an archaeologist working at a museum of antiquity with her late father’s best friend and partner, Professor Catalan. On the morning of Adrien’s leave, the museum is robbed of a precious statute by two South Americans who later kidnap Professor Catalan, and then later still Agnès, outside of her home while Adrien is speaking to police inside.
Instead of just calling the police, or reporting the kidnapping some other way, Adrien takes off on a motorcycle all through creation and to an airport, boarding a plane to Rio with Agnès and the two kidnappers ahead. This was back in a time, of course, when you could just get on an airplane without having paid or even giving anyone your name. The real problem — aside from the whole “my girlfriend has been kidnapped” thing — is that Adrien is not supposed to leave Paris while on leave, and here he is going to Brazil! He also has no money on him, or clothes, and Agnès has been drugged and maintains she’s never seen him before…this is another real problem.
Luckily, Agnès doesn’t remain kidnapped or drugged for very long, but that doesn’t end the ordeal; the thieves stole a very important artifact from her father’s collection: a statuette said to have magical powers. The statuette is one of three, the other two belonging to Catalan and the dad’s colleague Señor De Castro (Adolfo Celi), though one of those two is lost. For the next stretch of the movie, Adrien and Agnès find and lose the statuettes several times, as well as get separated a few times, all while seeing all different parts of Rio and surrounding desert.
The movie shifts in tone when the villain (who I won’t reveal lest it spoil the surprise) takes Agnès and the statuettes to the jungle to find the temple where the treasure is said to be held. Adrien chases after them, killing thugs and climbing on the outside of steamships and mountains trying to get back his lady love. If the bulk of the movie feels like a caper film, and yes a little like a Bond movie, then the finale definitely feels like an Indiana Jones movie, but only in retrospect, since those movies hadn’t been made yet and wouldn’t for close to 20 years.
De Broca directs action very matter-of-factly, but also very effectively. Most of the fights and chases are done in wide shot, without the benefit of quick cutting or jumbled close-ups to get the point across. The actors (or stunt people — sometimes they’re very visible) have to be on their mark and on the ball with their actions. A huge acrobatic skydiving stunt is pulled off beautifully, astounding for the time and budget. And Belmondo does his part with aplomb. The scenes of straight comedy — a lot of romantic comedy bickering that doesn’t feel cloying but truly funny — are also directed in this same manner, with the jokes coming from mid-to-wide shots of Belmondo and Dorléac, proving what deft comedic talents they are.
That Man from Rio was a massive hit in Europe and was even honored with an Academy Award nomination for de Broca’s original screenplay. That seems amazing to me, especially in 1964, and it proves just that a great story and funny dialogue can cut through any language barrier. The movie is infinitely watchable and continues to be funny each time you watch. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s available on Blu-ray from Cohem Films and for rental on Amazon video. It truly is a wild ride, and it’ll make Jackie Chan’s breed of comedic action make that much more sense.
Images: United Artists