If Spider-Man and other American comic books icons made a strong impression on me as a kid, this is nothing compared to how much I was into their European counter-parts, be it Lucky Luke, Tintin, Spirou or especially Astérix. I read the albums recounting the adventures of the tough little Gaul created by Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny over and over, marvelling in how every time I would notice or get more things, from the clever wordplay to the thinly disguised caricatures, anachronisms and cultural references. This kind of multi-layered writing and humor was missing from the first live action Astérix film, but it’s present in spades in this new movie, which has Alain Chabat taking over from Claude Zidi in the director’s chair.
While Zidi made a colorful and enjoyable romp, Chabat aims for and achieves more. Instead of staying in the Gaul village still resisting to the Roman armies surrounding it and blending bits and pieces from different stories together, Chabat’s film adapts in whole “Astérix & Cléôpatre”, one of the most exotic and lively albums. Incidentally, it was already made into a delightful 1968 animated movie. This latest incarnation unfortunately doesn’t keep the wonderful musical numbers of the cartoon, but it’s still a fun and witty flick.
Christian Clavier and Gérard Depardieu are back as cocky, yellow-haired Astérix and “big-boned”, red piggy-tailed Obélix. They’re pulled out of their hedonistic life of drinking, feasting and brawling when an Egyptian architect named Numérobis (Jamel Debbouze, the timid grocery clerk in “Amélie”) asks them and their druid Panoramix (Claude Rich), who holds the secret of a magic potion which gives the drinker superhuman strength, to come to Alexandrie and help him build a sumptuous palace he has to finish in three months as part of a bet Queen Cleopatra (Monica Bellucci) made with Julius Caesar (Chabat). It won’t be easy, as Numérobis’ competitor Amonbofis (Gérard Darmon) is determined to ruin the construction and have him thrown to the crocodiles…
“Mission Cléôpatre” is a grand scale adventure filled with gorgeous imagery of Egypt at its most glorious, but that’s just the toppings. The real pleasure of the film is in the interaction between the large cast and in Chabat’s irreverent writing. As with many comedies, it’s hard to write much about it as it has little underlying meaning outside of entertaining the audience, and there’s no point in spoiling all the gags and pop culture references. All I’ll say is that I loved the “I Feel Good” number and the climactic kung fu fight (!) and that Debbouze (who’s the star even more than Clavier and Depardieu) and all the actors are obviously having a great time and it transmits to the audience. This is the rare sequel which is better than the original.