Philippe de Broca’s That Man from Rio is a film from my childhood. Why? Because it was on the bottom half of a kiddie matinee at the State Theatre in Lake Wales, Florida. Now, who the hell knows why it was on a kiddie matinee is something else again. I don’t really think anyone involved in this decision thought that the local youth was just dying to see a French movie (even dubbed in English) with Jean-Paul Belmondo. I mean, sure, we were a cosmopolitan lot, but even I didn’t know who Jean-Paul Belmondo was — not at the age of 10. Of course, neither do I imagine those responsible for booking it had a clue. It was just two hours of babysitting programming. (The theater referred to itself as “the cheapest babysitting in town,” which at 25 cents for four hours was indisputable. You got dropped off at 1 p.m. and picked up at 5 p.m. — it was a different world.) The thing was — I loved it at once and always kept an eye out for it on TV. Little did I know that the movie had been a huge hit in France, that Belmondo was a hearthrob, that de Broca was a semi-important director (I didn’t really know what a director was) — I just knew it was a lot of fun.
Even later when I knew these things (for years it — and Casino Royale — were my only reference points for Belmondo), it never really occurred to me that That Man from Rio would one day take on classic status. It’s not that I think it doesn’t deserve it, just that it’s such charmingly, delightfully silly fun that it seems like a long-shot for classic status. (By that I mean real classic status — not the casual misuse of the term common today.) After all, this is a movie that co-opts much of the language of more serious New Wave films for a totally unserious adventure comedy. I’m good with that, but I’m not sure about the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd. In any case, it’s now considered a classic of French film — in all its goofy magnificence.
That Man from Rio is not a film for heavy thinking. It’s a movie that serves no real purpose other than to be colorful and entertaining. That it does this with great style is almost a bonus, but it’s also why it’s colorful and entertaining. The story scarcely bears scrutiny. Even its supposed big surprise isn’t hard to guess, though its ultimate adventure gag may be another matter. Mostly, it’s an excuse Belmondo — as a singularly unlikely hero — to chase after the not infrequently kidnapped Dorléac, and to fend off bad guys various and sundry, no matter what the odds. And the odds range from thugs with air-fired blow-guns, crocodiles, climbing tall buildings, and putting up with all kinds of discomfort and humiliation. What more can you want? How about a pink car with green stars or a helpful Brazilian shoeshine boy? Well, it’s got those, too.