First he flopped in Britain. Now he's fighting for a place in Hollywood history

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The Independent Culture
Yeah, baby, yeah! America has a new sensation at the movie box office. Or, to be more precise, a sensation that is swamping the entire country. Everywhere you turn, from cinema multiplexes to magazine covers, from advertising billboards to gift stores, by way of music videos and the Internet, there is one face, and one face only, staring out at you in all its nerdish amiability.

The name is Powers, Austin Powers. He may not look like much, with his thick, black-rimmed glasses and his foolish grin betraying some unsavoury teeth, but he is the grooviest secret agent on the planet, a hipster straight out of Sixties Swinging London, complete with sideburns, crushed velvet suits and Italian ankle-boots.

And if he's not too busy saving the world, you can be sure that he'll be exercising his irresistible charms on some cute chick, baring his animal-pelt chest hair and delivering his signature come-on line: "Do I make you randy, baby? Do I?" Strangely, it seems to work every time.

Austin Powers is the creation of Mike Myers, a Canadian of great personal modesty. "Basically," he said in a recent interview, "I'm a sexless geek. Look at me; I have no chin, I have acne scarring and I'm five-foot-nothing. It's not exactly a recipe for sexual dynamism."

This unlikely sex symbol was born in a Toronto suburb 36 years ago, to a Liverpudlian couple. He was convinced he was related to the Beatles because they had the same accent as his parents (who, incidentally, further encouraged young Mike's nascent comic Anglophilia by waking him up at night to watch Monty Python on television). By the late Eighties Myers was writing for Saturday Night Live, winning an Emmy and creating in the process the air-guitar-strangling rock-dork Wayne Campbell, eponymous hero of the $200m-grossing Wayne's World movie in 1992. This proved to be a tough act to follow. A year later, So I Married An Axe Murderer was a relative failure, while Wayne's World 2 (1993) brought in a third of the original's takings.

With his career seemingly in decline, and following marriage to a writer he had met at an ice-hockey game (after she'd been hit on the head with a puck), Myers decided to take a year out. He formed a retro-Sixties band called Ming Tea with the LA-based Anglophile popsters Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, which became the house band for the city's most fashionable hangout, Johnny Depp's Viper Club.

Austin Powers began to effloresce in Myers' imagination. Austin is every dorky American's idea of how dorky Englishmen see themselves in their dreams.

And he's hit the jackpot. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me opened across the United States last weekend and already it has achieved the unthinkable, knocking the new Star Wars film off its number one box-office perch only three weeks into its run. It racked up an astonishing $57m in its opening weekend, making it the second-fastest-grossing film of all time after, er, the new Star Wars film. In those first 72 hours alone, it took in more money than its predecessor, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, managed in its entire theatrical run.

And the cinema figures only begin to tell the story. Mike Myers as Powers is on the current cover of GQ, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. Inside several dozen more magazines, he is not only the subject of endless articles but also the star of a glossy advert for milk, which he is photographed drinking out of a Martini cocktail glass.

On television, he's out advertising Heineken beer and Philips high-definition television technology.

Madonna has got him in her latest video, Beautiful Stranger. Fashionable New Yorkers are hosting Austin Powers parties, dressing up in hotpants and flares. Austin Powers dolls are flying from the shelves. America On- Line, the Internet service provider, has got a special Austin Powers window that pops up on every user's screen. Virgin Airlines, meanwhile, has got him straddling a Virgin "Shaglantic" jet on huge billboards across the country. As Austin might say, groovy baby! But what happened to transform a relatively modest comic conceit, a spoof on James Bond that barely got noticed the first time of asking, into a phenomenon of monster proportions?

The answer has something to do with the curious, slow-burning appeal of the original, and a lot to do with the aggressively pursued blanket marketing campaign that has accompanied the new release. Whether The Spy Who Shagged Me is in fact any good is a point that, at this stage, has become almost irrelevant. The original Austin Powers was a delicious riff on the notion that James Bond has no business lasting into the Nineties, since the feel of his brand of spy capers - the clothes, the social mores and the geopolitics - are so firmly rooted in the memorable past. Both Powers and his arch-nemesis, Dr Evil (also played by Myers), are cryogenically frozen for 30 years, re-emerging in 1997 to pursue their never-ending battles and behaving as though Nehru jackets, free love and phrase such as "shag me, baby" were still the height of cool.

This anachronistic premiss is a wonderful excuse to play on all kinds of Sixties stereotypes, from the whirling kaleidoscope backdrops and multiple split screens to sequences in which Austin Powers fancies himself as a fashion photographer much like the David Hemmings character in Blow Up.

The bosses at New Line Cinema and its parent, Time Warner, didn't quite know what to make of this first Austin Powers, which they'd green-lighted largely on the strength of Myers' cult status from Wayne's World. They kept the budget low (about $16m) and sold the foreign rights ahead of time to make sure that they recouped their investment. The critics were similarly nonplussed, and the film did no more than middling business on its opening run.

Then came video. From the moment it hit the rental market, Austin Powers took off like a rocket, doing the rounds of college campuses and teenage sleep-over parties over and over again.

Any lingering doubts about making a sequel were then dispelled by last summer's surprise box-office hits, The Wedding Singer and There's Something About Mary - proof that adolescent humour and nerdy heroes are box-office gold in the late Nineties. New Line hurriedly lined up a new deal, this time with a $40m budget and at least that much again to spend on marketing and merchandising.

It could hardly go wrong. "The video was essentially a long commercial for the sequel," says New Line Productions' president, Michael De Luca. "It was a huge factor in making the film into a phenomenon."

Another huge factor was Time Warner's many-tentacled media empire. Two cable channels in the corporate stable have been broadcasting wall-to- wall promotions for the film. One of the company's record labels has issued the Madonna single, while its book-publishing arm has been working overtime on tie-ins. Warner Brothers retail stores, meanwhile, have been stocking their shelves with such items as a Swedish penis-enlarger (as featured in the first film, deemed an ideal joke gift for Father's Day on 20 June).

Amid all this sound and fury, what of the film itself? This is where the problems begin, partly because Austin Powers was never supposed to have a sequel. Sure, both Dr Evil and our hero survive the first film to fight another day, but that ending was clearly an ironic dig at films that leave themselves the option of further instalments. An Austin Powers sequel is thus by definition a bit of a sell-out. More seriously, there is nowhere for the story to go but back over the same territory. Instead of travelling forwards to the Nineties, Powers and Evil jump in a time machine to return to the Sixties, where all the jokes about anachronistic spy caper characters curl up and die.

In their place come a few new characters (a mini-clone of Dr Evil to add to his dysfunctional teenage son from the first movie, plus a third role for Mike Myers in the form of an obese Scotsman called Fat Bastard) and a few replacements (the luscious Heather Graham as the CIA operative Felicity Shagwell, standing in for Liz Hurley in her turn as as a post- feminist Mrs Peel).

The toilet and nudity jokes are not so much elaborated upon, as repeated - over and over again. And instead of the Sixties pop culture references we have tired parodies of Star Wars, presumably as some kind of nod to the box-office competition.

Most startlingly, the new film is chock-full of plugs for its corporate sponsors. Within the first 10 minutes there are clearly tagged references to America Online, Heineken, Virgin and various Kellogg's products. Chili's baby back ribs - a heavily promoted line in the US - do not just get a mention, they enjoy a rendition of their entire advertising jingle.

When Dr Evil sneers at his son and calls him "the mayonnaise, the Diet Coke of evil" you inevitably wonder just how much Coca-Cola paid the producers.

The Spy Who Shagged Me bears all the hallmarks of a film-by-numbers job by a studio that is clearly more interested in launching a commercial franchise than in making a decent movie.

New Line's executives have effectively admitted as much, and already have plans in the pipeline for an animated Austin Powers television series to run on one of Time Warner's cable networks, as well as a feature at the Six Flags Great Adventure theme park, which has a licensing agreement with the company.

"We're in this for the long run. We're building a franchise we hope will be around for a long time," says Rolf Mittweg, co-chairman of New Line's marketing department.

In other words, Austin Powers is turning into exactly the sort of thing it was lampooning in the first place. Having brilliantly and deliciously sent up James Bond for hanging around too long, it now looks likely to do exactly the same thing itself. As Austin Powers might have said: "Oh, behave!"

Additional reporting by Catherine Bassindale