Funnyman Elliot Gould was so prolific during the ’70s that his screen career ran along several parallel tracks—highbrow projects with Robert Altman, cameos in all-star movies, and so on. Yet perhaps the most interesting angle of his ’70s output was his pairing with various costars in buddy pictures—during the ’70s, it seemed Gould was Hollywood’s sparring partner of choice. Gould did one picture each with Robert Blake, James Caan, and George Segal, but he only went down the buddy-movie road twice with one actor: Donald Sutherland. Sardonic New Yorker Gould and reserved Canadian Sutherland first teamed, of course, in Altman’s 1970 antiwar classic M*A*S*H, playing irreverent surgeons. Their reunion, unfortunately, is as forgettable as M*A*S*H was memorable. S*P*Y*S—which was given an asterix-laden title solely for the purpose of luring M*A*S*H fans into theaters—is a dull, inept, noisy espionage caper that wastes the talents of everyone involved. Gould and Sutherland play bumbling American secret agents stationed in Europe who realize they’ve been targeted for assassination. Disillusioned, the men join forces to exploit their international contacts for a get-rich scheme involving the sale of important government secrets. This precipitates an uninteresting parade of chase scenes, double-crosses, and sight gags.
Directed by capable journeyman Irvin Kershner, whose movies always looked good even when they were dragged into mediocrity by lame source material, S*P*Y*S features handsome European locations, and most of the screen time is devoted to Gould and Sutherland exchanging banter. However, nothing clicks. The stars lack defined roles, so they’re forced to vamp through desperate physical and verbal shtick, and the plot is so convoluted and inconsequential it’s impossible to care what happens. (At its worst, the movie features Gould drugging Sutherland into a seizure so they can get out of paying for an expensive meal.) S*P*Y*S also features that true rarity—an atrocious musical score by the normally great Jerry Goldsmith. Dominated by an annoying synthesizer melody that sounds like it’s being played on a mechanized kazoo, the music feels like everything else in S*P*Y*S—a futile attempt to persuade viewers they’re seeing a comedy.