Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD (1998)–wait, yes, I can hear the mental brakes squealing, please finish the paragraph–may just be the best comic book movie ever. Yes, comic book movies existed way back in the dim days of the dawn of time–before the beginning of the Marvel Universe, before the X-Men came, when woolly mammoths roamed the Earth. Granted, most of them weren’t all that good, but when they were, you get a masterpiece like this one.
Masterpiece? Welllllll….yeah. It’s a word I will stand by. This movie has the all-to-rare blend of cheese, competence, gusto, earnestness, cool–and (attempted) depth that makes it genuinely watchable, enjoyable, and even rewatchable.
Most of all: it tried. It kept trying all the way through. And most of it? Hits the mark.
Hasselhoff is excellent as the cigar-chewing (…and smoking, I guess), gives-no-darns tough guy, leader, and Father to His Men. He goes whole hog on the role, gives it his all, growls, scowls, grins, menaces, and muscles his way through with enormous success. It also helps that he’s got the physical build to play a larger-than-life character. Hasselhoff is 6’4 and consistently paired off with shorter actors, his costumes emphasize his shoulders, and, yeah, he looks good. Just about everybody else is well-cast, too: from the scrawny but he’ll-grow-into-it Rookie to the utterly punchable supercilious bureaucrat, to the slavering villainess.
The only real weakness is the action sequences. They’re extremely small-scale, and pretty darned flat. A little more money and a few dozen more stuntmen would have done wonders. I’d also point out that Lisa Rinna, Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine, “an old hand at the sexpionage game” and second in command on the strike team, appears not to have been informed that she’s in a comic book movie. Oh well.
Opening in A Bunker, Somewhere,
“Ooo! He’s gonna shoot him!…who shot him?”
“Ok, so, that guy–”
“No, no, I know who got shot, it was that guy who was talking. Why?”
“Because the other guy is a traitor.”
HYDRA infiltrates and then attacks a SHIELD base to steal the corpse of Baron von Germanname, last of the global bogeymen. As to why there is a corpse on ice and not a pile of ashes in an unmarked urn somewhere, well, no clue. There is some slight resistance–
“Who this? Oh, the guy who was shot. Is he not dead?”
–a little bit of action–
“I don’t know what is going on.”
–Our first one-liner–
“That was a stupid saying. ‘Lets rock and let’s roll.’ For what?”
“What is going on? Still don’t know.”
–and a reveal of our female villain. The almost-dead-guy gasps out some dying words…
“What? What? He thought she was a boy? A man?”
“No, he was talking to Nick.”
“Like, just in general. Like, his last words. Like, ‘Mama!’ Only, he says Nick.”
And we are introduced to Nick Fury, a retired badass who is for reasons known only to himself spending his days in an abandoned mine in the Yukon, whaling on a rock wall with a pickaxe. Hey…wonder if he knows anyone else up there….
However, duty calls in the shape of a slightly-gormless new recruit who doesn’t even mind that Fury’s first response to the intrusion is a rather resentful beatdown.
“Is that Nick? Nick Fury? Why is he doing that?”
“He didn’t know who it was.”
“He had no call to beat the man!”
“It could have been an enemy!”
“You look first, and then you beat people! You do not beat them first! This is not a good Nick Fury.”
Fury, it turns out, is rather bitter about having been put out to pasture, and isn’t interested, until he’s told about SceneOne McDeadGuy.
“They killed who?”
“That guy who said ‘Nick’.”
After exchanging barbs with Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine, “an old hand at the sexpionage game,” and yes, that is a direct quote from the movie, matters proceed.
“What is this girl’s name? Pretty girl.”
“The eyepatch is not necessary.”
“He only has one eye!”
“Right. They didn’t have to have him that way.”
“He was that way in the original.”
Onboard the Helicarrier, we are introduced to PaleFace MindReader, an mind reader, who introduces herself by reading Fury’s mind.
“Did she know him?”
“No. She’s a mind reader.”
The Helicarrier set is quite a nice one. Yes, it’s a leftover from whatever submarine flick was released that year, but it has excellent set dressing and depth of field or whatever that sort of thing is called. And having background chatter, PA announcements, lots of extras moving around, so on and so forth, is also good for setting up verisimilitude. I mostly just like the fact that it’s not 110% CGI.
Notice the depth of the set on that second image: the heroes have already gone through one set of airlocks, the current space they’re standing in, and then the Contessa in the background is opening up the elevator, which they enter on camera in a single tracking shot. That’s cool!(Fury is grinning because he can’t hear the No Smoking sign over the sound of how awesome he is)
So Nick Fury, un-retired badass, gets straight to the butting of heads with his supercilious, obstructive, and petty supervisor. We know this guy is obstructive and petty because he tells Fury to put out that cigar.
“He shouldn’t be smoking! Breaking the rules is when you do good to break the rules. He is not a hero. That is an anti-hero….no matter how many people like him.”
“Nicotine is addictive.”
“That is not an excuse.”
“Look, he has to have the cigar when he says those lines, because they’d sound stupider if he didn’t have it.”
“I bet it helps him keep a straight face!”
The standard debriefing/cool toys scene follows:
“James Bond! He is M…? Q, no, he’s Q.”
As does a quick one that spoke deeply to my ex-payroll preparer heart:
“Heh, heh, heh, did you get that? It’s his W4. They’re trying to get him to sign his W4.”
“And he should!”
We are also introduced to the Life Model Decoys, a concept which plays quite an important part in the comics and also (HINT HINT FORESHADOWIIIIIING HINT) in this very movie. We also get a pretty cool line: “I don’t know whether to congratulate you or put a stake in its heart.”
Meanwhile, The Rookie is asking leading questions so the senior agents can explain the plot to him. The scene is a bit on the nose, but it serves its purpose to a) provide exposition for the audience, b) make it clear that the senior agents know what they’re talking about….so it really isn’t Rookie’s fault he’s a bit gormless.
“This guy…is he gonna be a crook?”
“He looks like a crook.”
“He’s a rookie. That’s why they have him chasing the W4s around.”
“Well then why doesn’t he know this stuff? This is important history.”
“Because he’s a rookie!”
“He’s an agent, isn’t he?”
“He just graduated from spy school! He’s not supposed to know anything!…heh heh heh, did you get that, spy school? High school? Heh heh. That was funny.”
To be continued later on account of my notebook went missing.