If Benny Hill made a spy movie it would probably look a lot like The Ambushers (1967). Whether that’s a good or a bad thing comes down to personal taste, but the third Matt Helm movie has a sorry reputation born from its curmudgeonly inclusion in Harry and Michael Medved’s book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.” As usual this ditches pulp author Donald Hamilton’s hardboiled plot in favour of frothy James Bond spoof. At a training camp for wannabe spies we’re introduced to the Slaygirls, a troupe of scantily-clad sex-bombs field-testing the latest Cold War gadget: a device that drops men’s trousers. “That’s usually when they’re most dangerous”, remarks one foxy femme.
Enter Matt Helm (Dean Martin), making out with a young trainee back at his bachelor pad. In a move that demonstrates the sheer coolness of Dino, he uses his own top ten hit “Everybody Loves Somebody, Sometime” to get her in the mood. Beat that, Mr. Bond. Matt promptly does a double-take when the girl unveils a pair of, ahem, fully-loaded bra-guns (which suggests the makers saw The 10th Victim (1965)), dallies all too briefly with his delectable secretary Lovey Cravesit (Beverly Adams - couldn’t they give her more to do in one of these films?), before some semblance of a plot kicks in.
America’s latest experimental flying saucer is felled by a tractor beam and its pilot captured and terrorized by a shadowy organization in Mexico. That pilot is Sheila Sommers (Janice Rule), now a shell-shocked wastrel unable to interact with anyone except Matt Helm. Identifying beer brewer Jose Ortega (Albert Salmi) as having a hand in the saucer abduction, I.C.E. (Intelligence and Counter Espionage) boss Macdonald (James Gregory) sends Matt and Sheila south of the border to retrieve the spacecraft and trace the enemy agent who tortured the latter. Their glamorous Mexican resort turns out to be overrun with death-traps - including a memorable vat of beer from which an overjoyed Matt is “forced” to drink his way out - and deadly double-agents like slimy Quintana (Kurt Kaznar) and sexy Francesca Medeiros (Senta Berger).
“Worst Film Ever” is a phrase bandied all too casually nowadays, usually by people who haven’t seen nearly enough movies that are truly bad. Nine times out of ten they’re talking about films that aren’t so much bad as mediocre. For this writer, a working definition of a bad film is one so repugnant and lacking in entertainment value it instantly fills you with hate. With an arsenal of fabulous Sixties fashions, silly sex gags, crazy gadgets and gorgeous women, The Ambushers is far too watchable to qualify as one of the worst movies ever made, even if it isn’t an especially good one.
The narrative is somewhat lazy, tailored around its clearly disinterested star, but scattered with spots of laughter, style and sexiness - usually whenever Senta Berger is onscreen - keep things amiable. Dean Martin is essentially going through the motions, but wakes up for one amusing sequence involving a Mexican firing squad or whenever he’s required to make the moves on some dishy starlet. Co-star Janice Rule tries her best but seems out of place, while the plot criminally wastes Eurospy veteran Senta Berger. Looking especially glam, Berger vamps it up and spars ably with Martin, yet typically for a Matt Helm picture is cold-shouldered amidst the chaotic climax. For an example of Berger’s range beyond simple spoofery, check her out in The Quiller Memorandum (1966).
Of course, no Matt Helm movie would be complete without a little dig at Dino’s Rat Pack pal Frank Sinatra. The Ambushers closes with him once again breaking out his old record, yet struggling to romance a British, blonde dolly-bird dressed in - to paraphrase James Bond - a flimsy little nothing she’s almost wearing. Whereupon “Strangers in the Night” plays on the radio and suddenly, she’s all over him. “I didn’t know you liked Perry Como that much”, gasps Matt. Take it or leave it, that’s the level of wit you’re dealing with here and if you thought Dean was coasting, wait till you see The Wrecking Crew (1969).