Now here's a funny thing. There I was, watching bits of For Your Eyes Only on the telly the other week, when a strange compulsion came over me. My little finger strayed to my mouth and I found myself saying things like '...one meellion dollars!', 'I shall call him - Mini-Me!', and 'we don't gnaw on our kitty.' Perhaps the makers of the Bond movies are justified in their belief that the Austin Powers franchise is somehow undermining their credibility (if that's a word one can meaningfully use in the context of a Bond film).
Well, all the complaints and threats and legal activity have come to naught as Austin, Dr Evil, Fat Bastard and even some characters not played by Mike Myers all return in Austin Powers in Goldmember, directed (like the two previous films) by Jay Roach. It's the usual strange combination of Monty Python and Carry On... style humour, often silly, occasionally tasteless, but always ultimately happy and good-natured. The plot is, as before, entirely incidental, so we needn't worry about that...
Hang on, though, perhaps we should. The original International Man of Mystery wasn't really intended to launch a blockbuster franchise, but The Spy Who Shagged Me got round this by being not much more than a bigger-scale, much more assured remake. And even then most of the big laughs came from unpredictable, out-of-left-field material like Dr Evil rapping or the character of Mini-Me. This gives this third entry two problems: how to continue the series in the same style without being a blatant rehash, and how to maintain the same levels of invention and surprise.
As far as the first is concerned, success is only partial. There's a fairly convoluted plot involving new villain Goldmember (Myers again, of course), Austin's dad Nigel (Michael Caine in rumbustious, self-parodic mood), and 70s girl detective Foxy Cleopatra (popstrel Beyonce Knowles in her movie debut). Caine is very, very funny, Goldmember rather less so, and while Knowles seems like a sweet girl, she's playing a one-joke character, and all the 70s and Blaxploitation references seem grafted onto the movie rather than arising naturally in the course of the story.
And the downside of all the new characters appearing is that much of the excellent ensemble cast of the first two films get a lot less screen time, with - to name only three - Michael York, Robert Wagner and Seth Green really not getting the material they deserve. (Although in a parallel universe somewhere, a parallel Awix is doubtless complaining about the lack of new ideas and over-reliance on old characters in their version of the film - there's no pleasing everyone.)
But please don't get the impression that this film isn't worth your time or money, because it definitely is. For all its flaws, Austin Powers in Goldmember is frequently very, very funny indeed: bits due to be re-enacted at tedious length in an office or classroom near you include Austin's encounter with improbably-monickered twin Japanese schoolgirls, a glimpse of the characters' schooldays, and Scott and Dr Evil finally bonding. Mini-Me (Verne Troyer) virtually steals the movie again, too.
Now, no-one could ever accuse the Austin Powers movies of failing to fully exploit the potential of a joke, and so it seems a little odd to accuse the script of re-using old material. Let's run the risk of being seen as odd anyway, and point out how many set-pieces we've seen at least once before in the series (and in their favour, the film-makers make a few jokes about this tendency themselves, most of them delivered - of course - by Ozzy Osbourne). Once or twice it achieves the same levels of invention and energy as The Spy Who Shagged Me - in the opening sequence, and in a couple of subtitle-related scenes - but elsewhere it simply revisits past triumphs such as Dr Evil rapping or Austin in hand-to-hand combat with a midget.
I will stress again that this is probably the funniest film of the year so far, only disappointing in comparison with its immediate predecessor. It certainly seems to have been written as the final installment of the series, and fingers crossed that Myers and Roach stick to this resolution. Take my advice, Mr Powers, and you'll only shag thrice.
Coming Soon: Another blockbuster comedy sequel, and mondo product placement ahoy, as Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones do their undertaker thing again in Men In Black II.