"Condorman," now at area theaters, continues the Disney studio's quest for a revitalized approach to juvenile adventure movies. The general idea, which remains to be finessed, is a significant decrease in innocuousness, cautiously calculated to pep up a droopy image without alienating a trusting public.
The plot of "Condorman" appears to cross "Hero at Large," a script that might have been ideal for Disney, with "From Russia With Love." Woody Wilkins, the cartoonishly named protagonist, is a brash comic-book author and illustrator drawn into espionage while visiting a friend, a CIA agent named Harry Oslo, in Paris. Recruited by Harry for emergency courier duty, Woody impresses the beautiful Soviet double agent, Natalia, he's assigned to contact in Istanbul. Forced to defect, she insists on entrusting her safety to the amateur agent she knows as Condorman, a code name Woody has borrowed from one of his comic-book superheroes.
The romantic comedy aspects of the plot are a bust. Even if the script were adequate, casting the lead with a performer as faded and sexless as Michael Crawford, the aging British juvenile introduced by Richard Lester in "The Knack," would still have been a ruinous misjudgment. The studio seems to have peculiar notions about the sort of actors that can be relied upon to charm a family audience. What's the point of refurbishing the old image with saggy-featured has-beens?
Although the role of Woody often seems to be crying out for a young Danny Kaye, one could imagine it as a winning opportunity for comics like Robin Williams or Dom DeLuise, or such erstwhile Disney employes as Kurt Russell or Jan-Michael Vincent. A wimpy, effusive liability, Crawford does not inspire confidence as a humorous leading man. He has an annoying habit of grimacing to excess, particularly when he has no lines. It's as if the effort to pick up his cues provoked severe contortions around t e mouth and jaw.
Barbara Carrera looks sensational in her first appearance as Natalia, her cloche hat tilted at a rakish angle across her brow, and crimson lipstick providing a vivid contrast to her black wardrobe. In this outfit she bears an appealing resemblance to the young Patricia Neal, but she's still more of a fashion model than an actress, and far too sedate to respond to a comic adventure assignment with the verve and charm one might count on from a good young comedian. A hopeless mismatch, she and Crawford seem to have been chosen to accentuate each other's weaknesses.
By default, the hero's sidekick tends to emerge as a more plausible hero. Though too nondescript and mild-mannered for leading-man duty, James Hampton is at least a confident, relaxed actor, and his Harry is certainly indispensable all along the escape route, which supposedly begins in Yugoslavia and meanders scenically across the Italian Alps and down to the French Riviera.
You can't escape the impression that "Condorman" is struggling to catch up with popular trends rather than inventing something fresh. Nevertheless, it's the action footage derived from the James Bond series that eventually keeps the show afloat. For all practical purposes "Condorman" is salvaged by the second unit, directed by Anthony Squire and manned by Remy Julienne's daredevil stunt drivers, who perform impressively behind the wheels of exotically designed and armed sports cars and speedboats, equipped by Colin Chilvers, an Oscar-winning special-effects supervisor.
In fact, the Squire-Julienne-Chilvers team does a far more effective job of supplying action and playful gadgetry in the Bond tradition than the current Bond movie, "For Your Eyes Only." There's an entertaining chase along winding mountain roads and an even livelier showdown at sea. Moreover, these sequences aren't overextended. They've been astutely placed in the story continuity and then incisively edited. This discretion enhances their effectiveness; the action stuff stands out against the lackluster expository material. In "For Your Eyes Only" the action highlights tend to become inseparable from the aimless exposition.
"Condorman" is ingenious enough when it comes to mechanical resources. Its undoing is personality resources. The Disney organization will never get very far off the ground if it persists in pinning its hopes for vicarious adventure on gooney-bird leading men.