Bob St. Clare (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is the world’s greatest secret agent. Feared by men. Adored by women, particularly his sexy sidekick, Tatiana (Jacqueline Bisset). Summoned from his summer vacation, punching out terrorists in Baghdad, St. Claire sets out to foil the dastardly Russians, Chinese and an army of international criminals. By day he machine guns hundreds of leather clad assassins without even looking. By night, he composes poetry, plays piano concertos, and makes love like a sexual athlete. Which is all very well, except Bob St. Clare doesn’t exist. He’s a fictional character created by Francois Merlin (also Belmondo), a lonely, neurotic writer living alone in his dingy apartment, bullied by his publisher (Vittorio Caprioli), and yearning after his lovely neighbour, Christine (Bisset again)…
Le Magnifique doubles as both an uproarious, super-stylish spy spoof and a witty portrait of an embittered hack struggling with writer’s block. Throughout the first twenty minutes the film plays like a standard Euro-spy caper, until Merlin’s housekeeper suddenly wanders into the middle of a beach-set shootout and the truth is revealed. Reality keeps bursting his creative bubble, in the form of leaky plumbing, nosey houseguests and money problems. Cheated by a succession of handymen, Merlin deals them colourful, cartoon deaths in his fantasy world and transforms his smarmy publisher into St. Clare’s arch-enemy, Colonel Karpof.
Fantastically over the top, the film’s space-age sets and camp costumes spoof the wilder excesses of Ken Adam and Mario Bava, while the Sam Peckinpah-style, slow-mo orgies of death are hilariously gory. Bullets rip through bodies, wounds explode, a river of blood flows across Karpof’s lair, and most memorably - a brain blown out of its skull onto a dinner plate! Many of the gags prefigure those found in later, Hollywood spoofs like The Naked Gun (1988) and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). Instead of sharks with frikkin’ laser beams, here we have rats with teeth laced with cyanide (ready to be shoved up St. Clare’s arse!). Characters even complain to Merlin about how ridiculous this sounds.
The sun-soaked beaches and clear blue seas of Acapulco weave an enticing spell, plus there is eye-candy aplenty for boys and girls with ravishing, bikini-clad Jacqueline Bisset and an impressively bronzed and sculpted Jean-Paul Belmondo (at one point St. Clare kisses his muscles). Belmondo is a brilliant physical comedian, spoofing Bond, Bogart and even his own screen persona, as well as performing his trademark, daredevil stunts. This was his fourth collaboration with Philippe De Broca, following three classic comedy/adventures: Cartouche (1962), The Man from Rio (1964) and Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine (1965) - all major influences on Steven Spielberg. De Broca and Belmondo had a falling out after their fifth venture together, the ebullient comedy L’Incorrigible (1974), but reunited for the bizarro, sci-fi kiddie flick Amazone (2000).
What lifts Le Magnifique far above most humdrum spoofs is the way rain-soaked reality slowly brightens the more Merlin admits his true feelings (“I’m forty years old and lonely”). The real Christine proves more far more vibrant, intelligent company and certainly no less gorgeous, or scantily clad. Bisset fans are in for a real visual treat. It culminates with a revenge-crazed Merlin rewriting his alter-ego into a clumsy, disease ridden oaf and finally, a mincing queen while Tatiana becomes a gang-banged whore. True happiness awaits with Christina in the real world, although one wonders whether Belmondo saw the irony a decade later when he was playing all-action super-studs in films like Le Professional (1981), Le Marginal (1983) and Le Solitaire (1987). Characters who were Bob St. Clare in all but name.