Having foiled the evil schemes of masked super-criminal Fantomas (Jean Marais), accident-prone Police Commissioner Juve (Louis de Funès) receives the Legion of Honour in a ceremony attended by his allies, tough guy journalist Fandor (Jean Marais again) and plucky photographer Hélène (achingly lovely Myléne Demongeot). Afterwards he receives a letter of congratulations from none other than Fantomas! Sure enough the green faced goon announces his latest evil plan on national television: to build a secret weapon that will make him master of the world. Realizing Fantomas is out to kidnap the brilliant Professor Lefebvre (Jean Marais yet again), Fandor disguises himself as the scientist and attends a conference in Rome with the aim of trapping the criminal mastermind.
Although the first Fantomas (1964) was not the runaway hit the producers had hoped for it made enough money to sire this sequel which was an even more elaborate comic book caper. Superior to its progenitor in most regards, Fantomas Strikes Back overflows with breakneck action, charming comedic set-pieces, wacky sci-fi gadgets (Juve's exploding cigars, peg-leg machinegun and raincoat with malfunctioning artificial arms figure in several hilarious gags) and outstanding pop art futuristic sets. Critics at the time carped that plot took a back seat to style and slapstick silliness but viewed today as a relic of a colourful and carefree era in Sixties French cinema the film packs charm in abundance.
Veteran director André Hunebelle (who had an interesting parallel career as a master glassmaker) was pushing seventy when he made the film but while his direction occasionally lacks focus the cast compensate with their unflagging energetic performances. For while it may seem as if French film icon Jean Marais monopolizes the screen essaying multiple roles, punching bad guys like a one-man army or exuding menace and hints of humanity under a sinister green mask as the titular villain, this movie is really an ensemble piece. Indeed the cartoon credits featuring an animated Inspector Juve, reminiscent of Friz Freleng and David DePatie's seminal titles for The Pink Panther (1964) (there is a touch of Inspector Clouseau about the self-deluding buffoonery of Juve), all but admit comedian Louis de Funès was as much the male lead as Marais. Jacques Dynam also adds to the fun as Juve's comically flustered sidekick.
This time around Funès got to shoot as many bad guys as Marais and don an array of disguises too. In fact identity confusion appears to be the film's central theme as disguises are taken to knowingly ludicrous extremes. The heroes come up with such clever counter-schemes they end up confusing each other long before Fantomas arrives on the scene. By now Juve is so paranoid he sees Fantomas everywhere and ends up sabotaging his own traps. At one point, perhaps inevitably, Juve ends up in a psychiatric hospital where he struggles to convince doctors he really is a policeman pursuing a maniacal masked super-villain.
Happily Myléne Demongeot also has more screen time this time around. More than Jean Marais in fact. With her tight outfits and delightful pout she is an undeniably captivating presence but also shoulders her own suspense sub-plot. When Hélène's prank-loving kid brother (Olivier de Funès, Louis' real-life son) ends up abducted by Fantomas, she has no choice but to sneak into a costume party as his plus one donning a very fetching Arabian Nights inspired dress in a sequence indebted to Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955). Whereupon it turns out Fantomas has designs on the delectable Hélène. Frankly, who can blame him? Hunebelle serves up a delirious third act wherein our heroes escape from an undersea base near an active volcano after which Fandor and Juve's car chase after Fantomas proves a trifle repetitive, save for a remarkable sky diving stunt that predates Moonraker (1979). Hunebelle reunited his cast for one final sequel with Fantomas vs. Scotland Yard (1967).