Off with his head
For anyone who may be considering Inspector Gadget, here's the sole worthwhile gag; read this if you want to save 80 minutes and eight bucks. Intercut with the end credits, we see one of the heavies in the film, Sikes (Michael G. Hagerty), a minion of the evil supergenius Claw (Rupert Everett). Now reformed from his evil ways, Sikes is addressing a 12-step-style "Minion Recovery Group," and listening to him share is a roomful of such venerable henchpersons as Jaws (Richard Kiel), Oddjob, and Igor. There, now you can stay home.
For the sake of those who didn't camp out in front of theaters for weeks to buy opening-day tickets for Inspector Gadget, a bit of background may be in order. The film is a live-action version of a syndicated TV cartoon that was produced between 1983 and 1985 and that returned as a holiday special, Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas, on NBC in 1992. The title flatfoot was a sort of human Swiss army knife: Under his trench coat and brimmed hat, he concealed all manner of crime-busting gizmos. The cartoon, in turn, was largely derivative of Get Smart! -- the great, gadget-laden live-action spy spoof of the '60s -- so much so that Don Adams lent his unmistakable Maxwell Smart voice to the Inspector.
In the film, the title role is played by Matthew Broderick, whose sheepish, unassuming tones are about as perfectly opposite of the confident nasal blare of Don Adams as you could get. In this version, our hero is a security guard with a case of the wanna-be-cop blues and also a single parent to his niece (Michelle Trachtenberg). One night, while attempting to chase down the baddies who have murdered a scientist and stolen robotic secrets from the plant he's guarding, the unfortunate rent-a-cop is horribly maimed.
He's reassembled, though, by the pretty daughter (Joely Fisher) of the murdered scientist. Many of his appendages have been replaced by gadgetry, which he can summon with the incantation "Go, go, gadget," followed by whatever item -- foot spring, helicopter rotor, Pez dispenser -- he needs. He's a comic Robocop. He also has a Gadgetmobile, who sasses him in the nutty voice of comic D.L. Hughley. Of course, the villainous Claw, played by a slumming, elegant-looking Everett, whips up an evil Inspector -- an exact replica, save for huge, square teeth. In case you were wondering, the good and evil versions of Gadget do face off and have a big climactic showdown.
While most feature knockoffs of retro TV shows range from mediocre to dismal -- given the choice, I think I'd rather sit through Inspector Gadget again than the new Wild Wild West -- at least you can see why they were made. If no one would suggest that series such as The Wild, Wild West; The Mod Squad; Car 54, Where Are You?; My Favorite Martian; or The Beverly Hillbillies were abiding works of the human spirit, they were still generally shows for which genuine affection is possible. But are there really legions of postboomers out there sighing nostalgically over the happy hours they spent watching Inspector Gadget?
The movie of Inspector Gadget probably happened now simply because it could. Other attempts to add two dimensions to cartoon characters, such as Robert Altman's Popeye or Stanley Tong's Mr. Magoo, have failed, but both of these were low-tech in approach. It was the Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask that proved that, with advances in computer animation, cartoon-style visual comedy could now be pulled off successfully in live-action movies. It even shows up on series TV, as in Ally McBeal's flights of fancy. The trouble is, the gags still have to be funny and imaginative, and Inspector Gadget's aren't.
A few of the actors try to help -- Andy Dick as Claw's spacey lab assistant, or Saturday Night Live's Cheri Oteri doing her aggressively prim routine as the mayor -- but they aren't given enough space or time to really get rolling. As for Broderick, he'd better be careful. After this film and Godzilla, he could become typed as the mellow human center of overproduced special-effects contraptions. Considering the enormous promise of his start in movies, it would be a bitter fate.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.