Dir: Alain Chabat. France. 2001. 107mins.
Mission Cleopatra has come, been seen and conquered. In a mere six weeks, the record-setting $42m blockbuster comedy has racked up 12.9m admissions ($61.9m) in France from 898 sites, and should replace 1992 Gaumont time-warp comedy Les Visiteurs as the second top-grossing French film of all time. (The champ remains the 1966 Louis de Funes-Bourvil war farce La Grande Vadrouille with 17m admissions). In addition, it has already entered the German charts at number one, taking Euros 2.7m from 705 screens, with further rollouts planned or underway in Switzerland, Holland and Finland. Based on the comic strip created in 1959 by Albert Uderzo and Rene Goscinny, whose 30 comic albums have sold some 280m copies worldwide, Mission Cleopatra is the second live-action screen adaptation and comes three years after Claude Zidi's 1999 hit Asterix And Obelix Versus Caesar.
Both films were produced by the high-rolling Claude Berri (whose other major production, Costa-Gavras' Amen, is currently paying off here). By general consent this new instalment is superior in rollicking one-liner humour to its predecessor; but for rhythm, dramatic coherence and easy charm Zidi's film perhaps scores more points. Both, however, fail to do full justice to the idiosyncratic originality of the comic strip creations - although to judge by box-office results the strip's vast legion of fans don't seem to mind.
One of Berri's biggest gambles here has been to have entrusted France's biggest ever film budget ever to the relatively inexperienced Alain Chabat, a gifted cable TV funnyman (from the fertile Canal Plus fold) who has only directed one feature previously. Unfortunately, Chabat's TV skit mentality, skewed to the tastes of a younger generation of television- and clip-nurtured audiences, depends too much on puns and in-jokes that will mean nothing to overseas audiences (the film's opening in Germany is down on that of its predecessor). Worse, he has virtually reduced the film's putative stars, Christian Clavier - as the spunky Gaul Asterix - and Gerard Depardieu - as his massive bean-brained sidekick Obelix - to glorified guest stars in their own movie vehicle. Instead pride of place is given to his fellow comedians from his Canal Plus days - particularly Jamel Debbouze, the diminutive French Arab comedian who plays the grocer's clerk in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie.
In Chabat's patchy adaptation of the source book, Cleopatra (the pneumatic Bellucci) wagers her lover Jules Caesar (embodied by Chabat with amusing fatuous aplomb) that her architects can build him a vast palace in a mere four months. To the dismay of the court architect (Darmon), she assigns the impossible task to 'avant-garde' builder Debbouze, who races off to Roman-occupied Gaul to enlist the aid of Asterix and Obelix and, most importantly, the village druid Panoramix (Rich, also cruelly under-employed), holder of a magic potion that can provide superhuman strength to Debbouze's workforce. Most of the plot developments stem from Darmon's attempts to sabotage the work site by inciting labour disputes and other underhanded ploys.
Betraying his home screen origins, Chabat fails to do justice to the comic-epic aspect of his material, too often falling back on the anachronistic gags and movieland quotes (the final Debbouze/Darmon showdown is a lampoon of the tree-top duel from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and other martial arts epics).
In the midst of all this, Depardieu and Clavier and Rich appear to have little to do other than supply reaction shots and introduce special effects scenes. Debbouze, on the other hand, steals the show (as he was obviously programmed to do) and receives funny support from Eduard Baer, Dieudonne and Chabat himself.
Prod cos: Katherina/Renn Productions, TF1 Films, Chez Wam
Int'l dist: Pathe
Int'l sales: President Films
Exec prods: Claude Berri
Prod: Pierre Grunstein
Scr: Chabat, based on the comic strip by Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny
Cinematography: Laurent Dailland
Prod des: At Hoang
Ed: Stephane Pereira
Music: Philippe Chany
Cast: Christian Clavier, Gerard Depardieu, Monica Bellucci, Jamel Debbouze, Gerard Darmon, Claude Rich, Alain Chabat, Edouard Baer, Dieudonne