Secret Agent 00 Soul (1990) – Celebrating the Sexually Transcendent Charisma of Billy Dee Williams
Casting a re-boot for a franchise as iconic as Star Wars is a tenuous thing (Yes, it’s a re-boot, not a just a series of prequels, and I will fight you). Carrie Fisher is swirling in the heavens, too good for this world, while Princess Leia ended The Last Jedi still with us. Can you imagine another face crowned with that immortal hairdo? It’s blasphemy, I tell you! But the Dark Lord Disney has given his blessing, and here we are faced with the younger, hipper cast of Solo: A Star Wars Story– the origins of Han Solo. Were we even curious?
Whether or not Alden Ehrenreich, with his Old Navy ad good looks, has the scoundrel swagger to fill Harrison Ford’s utility vest is debatable. There is no doubt in my mind that Lord and Miller shared a solid high-five when Donald Glover was cast as Lando Calrissian, the role made legendary by Billy Dee Williams. And I bet that high-five still stung long after the directing duties got passed to elder-filmmaker Ron Howard.
Never has casting been so celebrated for a role that is just barely a character. Calrissian doesn’t even get 15 minutes on screen in the entire original, sacred trilogy. In The Empire Strikes Back, Lando is just a cog in the machine, used to move the main characters from one area of Cloud City to the other but because he is Billy Dee Williams, he’s at the top of my CAILF list (City Administrator I’d Like to… y’know). Billy Dee’s qualities as an actor are ineffable – he has charisma, magnetism, a devastating smile, and a bod that looks damn good in a cape. I guess his qualities are effable – very, extremely effable.
Billy Dee Williams is so profoundly effable, that he elevates literally any film. Case in point, the direct to VHS gem, Secret Agent 00 Soul. This is a bad movie in which the titular Secret Agent, played by Billy Dee, is fired ten minutes into the film for being too clumsy to agent. This movie is part James Bond, part Mr. Magoo, part Scooby Doo, and none of the parts operate even remotely. But by the miraculous power of Billy Dee Williams alone, I found myself entertained for the entire 70 minute run time. His performance transcends the nonsense script, 30% of which was ADR’ed in post, and makes this steaming pile watchable.
The film opens with Secret Agent James Brown (Williams) on a mission in Russia, narrowly escaping the KGB in such spectacular form that I’m sure that Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is just a rip off of Agent Zero. He then literally trips back onto the homeland from a helicopter, lands smack on the tarmac, where he is met by the leggiest chauffer ever committed to VHS, who deeply frenches him twice. “You fell out of that helicopter and didn’t even get hurt! You’re such a real man.” The signals are baffling. In every scene he is tripping over a houseplant into the arms of a super model. Is he a buffoon or a sex symbol – you decide (BILF?). Those scenes may have just been improvised. B.D.W. tries his hand at slapstick comedy and actors playing receptionists just start taking their hair down and casting aside their prescription-less spectacles. It’s, like, a pheromone thing.
Since Agent Brown completed his mission by losing invaluable stealth technology to the Russians and accidentally blowing up all of the F.B.I.’s things, he is forced to make the power move of quitting before he’s fired and decides to go into business for himself. The government repossesses his mansion and his Rolls Royce, but, luckily, the government does not repossess his tux, which he wears for the entirety of the film. He opens a private detective agency above his friend’s (Chino ‘Fats’ Williams) greasy spoon, Bertha’s Diner.
Former Secret Agent James Brown’s private detective agency has a crack staff of two – his degenerate son, James “Junior” Brown III or sometimes IV (Jaime Cardriche), and the attractive British actress he meets posing as a New York taxi driver Alex Westmore (Amanda LeFlore). Junior, despite having advanced degrees in medicine and law, has only been able to accomplish getting kicked out of the mission house for eating too much and smelling terrible. Unbeknownst to Brown, Alex Westmore is not an actress but a British secret agent who has been closely tailing him. They inevitably share tremendous chemistry, and when they finally get their romantic dinner date at Brown’s pad, Brown accidently burns (explodes) the duck and finds out she’s his daughter. Insert sad trombone here!
It is not long before the cases for Detective Former Special Agent Brown start rolling in, and he dons his Sherlock Holmes-ian deerstalker cap and cape. Over the tux, of course. The first case ends with Brown being thrown threw the glass window of a bar, and the second was just a trap set by a Russian agent, Marco (Alex Daniels), over some secret agent beef, but yelp reviews don’t exist in 1990 and they manage to get a third case. An elderly man feels that evil spirits have overtaken his stately home and he hires P.I. Brown and his team of progeny to stay overnight. Just a few feet into the foyer, the supernatural nature of the home starts to reveal itself. For example, there is a popping-locking werewolf in the parlor. They climb the stairs, and there is a crew of mummies that deliver a chilling warning in rap form, “We’re the rapping mummies and we’re here to say, this is our house and we’re here to stay.” They continue to menace our heroes with synchronized dance and a mean moonwalk, but Detective Brown is not to be intimidated. I don’t want to include too many spoilers, just enough to entice you, but Brown does manage to crack this case wide open… and they would’ve gotten way with it too if it weren’t for that meddling former secret agent and his grown kids.
Since his casting as the slick hustler turned Baron-Administrator, never has it been more clear that Donald Glover is the spiritual heir of Billy Dee William’s career and legacy. He has the charm, good looks, comedic timing, and acting prowess. All that, and he’s unspeakably effable. I dare say, that Donald Glover should reboot all of Williams’ best roles starting with the Secret Agent 00 Soul. Glover has the wherewithal to balance the family drama with the physical comedy, and he gets to show off his rapping chops as well. Wait! Have I not mentioned that Billy Dee Williams raps the theme as well as some of the interstitial narration? Because no one can say with certainty that what he is doing is NOT rapping. “Without a doubt, I get the job done,/catching bad guys on the run.” Billy Dee has bars (sort of)!
The movie was released in 1990, but the film has the slick, nostalgic sophistication of a classic spy flick that could have just as easily been made in 1989. I know what you’re thinking. Gullickson, you have way oversold this movie and I’m inevitably going to be disappointed. I assure you, that is impossible. I didn’t even tell you about the part when Junior incapacitates a villain with his toxic, visible fart. If I were not already happily married, I would walk down the aisle to this movie. There is a unique cynicism to watching movies that are so bad, they’re good, and it’s generally not a perspective I’m attracted to or admire. Secret Agent 00 Soul is bad. It’s very, very bad. But Billy Dee Williams is just so good.
You can watch Secret Agent 00 Soul on YouTube thanks to user VHS Archives. I’m unclear of the ethics of this, but I am just here reporting facts. It was first posted on January 31st, 2015, so, no, I’m not sure why you haven’t watched it yet either.