Right off the bat Code Name Jaguar scores points with a memorable intro where a huge submarine rises out of the water like a whale - or perhaps something more phallic (this is a James Bond rip-off after all) - startling some people on a passing speedboat. The CIA send secret agent Jeff Larson (Ray Danton) - code-named Jaguar, natch - to Spain to investigate reports that a traitor is revealing American naval movements to the Russians. There Jeff reunites with old friend and fellow spy: Bob Stuart (Roger Hanin) and sparks up a feisty dynamic with fetching female agent Pilar Perez (Pascale Petit). Though Jeff's brash American ways irk his Spanish allies, including Commandant Luis Moreno (Conrado San Martin), he works his charms on sultry nightclub owner Lina Calderon (Helga Sommerfeld). With Lina's help, Jaguar Jeff discovers the Russians are indeed up to no good.
American actor Ray Danton made a handful of Eurospy movies including Jess Franco's playfully postmodern Lucky the Inscrutable (1967) and two French productions: Secret Agent Superdragon (1966) and Corrida pour un espion a.k.a. Code Name Jaguar a.k.a. The Spy Who Went Into Hell, easily the most down to earth of the bunch. Adapted from a novel by screenwriter Claude Rank the film boasts a plot more dense and serious than most Eurospy efforts. Despite the superficially light tone it is more interested in proper espionage stuff like counter-intelligence and surveillance than zany gadgets or even outrageous action scenes, but delivers the requisite glamour, sex and banter.
Much like the Bond films, Code Name Jaguar tries to have things both ways by presenting its hero as both a daredevil jokester and ruthless bastard shockingly indifferent to other people's feelings. It does not quite pull off that tightrope walk. One moment Jeff pranks Pilar by dropping his towel as he steps out of the shower, the next he tortures a prisoner while his allies look on in horror ("We hate this man as much as you, but he is still a man"). Given this is a Sixties spy movie we expect the protagonist to be a sexist boor who manhandles women into bed though that does not make scenes where Jeff forces himself on the female leads any easier to watch. Even more alarming is his lack of sensitivity when reacting to the death of three Spanish soldiers killed in the line of duty. While Code Name Jaguar is presented in the familiar larky style common to Eurospy films one suspects Claude Rank set out to write something more morally complex, or at least vent some European opinions about Americans.
To its credit the plot develops a grudging respect between Jeff and Moreno wherein both men come to prove their decency in each other's eyes. It also injects some moral complexity via a mind-control twist straight out of The Manchurian Candidate (1962). The guilt-ridden traitor tries to protect Jeff out of friendship and at the finale the hero rewards this by protecting his reputation. Little touches like this elevate Code Name Jaguar above its dated sexism to the upper rank of Eurospy movies. Maurice Labro, one of those populists in Sixties French cinema sneered at by the Nouvelle Vague, exhibits a talent for dynamic staging. Even though his action sequences are pedestrian (the obligatory rooftop chase, a car chase-cum-fist-fight in a rock quarry) they are picturesque. The sets have an impressive Ken Adam-like quality in eye-catching colours while the sun-kissed Spanish scenery looks glorious.
On the acting front Ray Danton shows off his athleticism in the action scenes but somehow his womanizing superspy lacks that dangerous edge. Much like Roger Moore's James Bond, Danton confuses charm with smarm and comes across a semi-comic character even downright bumbling at times. In Hollywood Danton scored notable roles in crime biopics The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) and The George Raft Story (1962) without quite rising to the big leagues. In later years he formed a production company through which he produced and directed cult horror films like Deathmaster (1972) and Psychic Killer (1975) then rounded off his career directing a lot of television: e.g. Magnum, P.I., Cagney & Lacey. Compared with Danton's lightweight turn co-star Roger Hanin exudes more charisma and edge. Indeed the multi-talented French actor had already co-written and headlined two spy films: Code Name Tiger (1964) and Our Agent Tiger (1965) directed by the great Claude Chabrol. Hanin went on to be a major force in French film and television as both an actor, writer and director (e.g. The Protector (1974), Hell Train (1985), Soleil (1997)). Among the supporting players Pascale Petit and sexy Helga Sommerfeld etch two fairly vivid characters, even while reduced to hissing insults at each other over Jeff (to his smug amusement), and look out for Wolfgang Preiss who essayed the title role in the Sixties Dr. Mabuse films. Music by Michel Legrand who of course went on to score a proper James Bond film (well, sort of) in Never Say Never Again (1983).