A lot happened to Lee Majors following the cancelation of his hit series The Six Million Dollar Man. Unhappy with the strong-arm tactics he used to get a raise for the show’s fifth (and final) season, Hollywood studio execs had no desire to reward his rebellion by casting him in a major motion picture. Meanwhile, his own attempt to transform himself into a serious action star resulted in The Norseman, one of the more laughable period flops the 1970s would ever produce. Steel (in which he played a “world-famous” construction foreman) and the Brazilian/British co-production, Killer Fish (three guesses what that one was about) also failed in their attempts to connect with anyone anywhere.
His superstar marriage to Farrah Fawcett in shambles, he found himself heading up north, where he engaged in a brief, but memorable dalliance with Karen Kain, Canada’s most famous classical dancer (which served as the very loose basis of his 1984 TV movie, The Cowboy and the Ballerina), and starred in not one, but two tax shelter efforts, Agency and The Last Chase.
Of all the films Majors made before his TV career was resurrected by the success of The Fall Guy, it’s the first of these two canuxploitation efforts that stands out. Unlike his other post-Steve Austin/pre-Colt Seavers films, Agency achieves a level of entertaining mediocrity that places it above the others (which range from pretty bad to mind-blowingly awful). It’s also marks one of the only times in his long career where he played a normal, sometimes hapless, human being who didn’t have an awesome theme song or the ability to run really fast in slow motion.
Watching the film it actually takes a second to adjust to the fact that Peter Morgan, Majors’ character and Agency’s protagonist, isn’t a cyborg secret agent or a bounty hunter/stunt man. With his neatly cropped beard he looks more like the Brawny Paper Towel man than any copywriter I’ve ever seen (and I see one every time I look in the mirror). Thankfully, he transcends the initial implausibility of his appearance through a mixture of humour and sly self-awareness.
It’s a performance choice perfectly in keeping with the film’s strangely light-hearted tone. Sold as a standard conspiracy thriller, Agency works better as a gently satiric jab at the ad biz—one whose best jokes are likely going to hit home only with those of us who have spent time in the industry. Lacking the bite of Putney Swope or even Crazy People, Agency takes pains to acknowledge the absurdities of advertising, but doesn’t really have much to say about them.
Majors’ Morgan is the creative director at a successful big city ad firm (like a lot of canuxploitation films, the actual name of the big city is kept secret lest it give the film’s Montreal locations away) that has been recently purchased by a wealthy, mysterious Washingtonian named Ted Quinn (Robert Mitchum, who could play this kind of dastardly exec in his sleep—and pretty much does so here). Fellow copywriter, Sam Goldstein (Saul Rubinek, who received a Genie nomination for his performance) is paranoid about their new boss and his plans for the top-secret Chocolate Planet drink powder ad campaign.
Turns out Goldstein is onto something. He’s soon fired and found dead inside his refrigerator. It’s made to look like a suicide, but no one buys it, including the police who arrest Morgan when they find out he liberated a reel-to-reel tape that Goldstein recorded just before he was killed. With the help of his doctor lady-friend, Brenda (a sadly under-utilized Valerie Perrine, who wears more clothes in any one scene of this film than she does in all of her others combined), Morgan discovers that Quinn subliminally placed the world’s most negative political ad under a benign S&M themed deodorant commercial (think The Apple meets Staying Alive) and caused a shocking senatorial election upset in a key state. It turns out that the Chocolate Planet campaign that spooked Goldstein is intended to start indoctrinating children against the dangers of bleeding-heart liberalism at the earliest possible age.
Quinn is killed by a fellow conspirator just as the police catch him trying to permanently silence Morgan, but it’s clear he’s just a cog in the machine and the conspiracy to control the mind of the public will continue at some other agency in some other city.
If that sounds depressing, you wouldn’t know it from the film. Considering the potential consequences of the plot Morgan uncovers, Agency never seems to take it all that seriously. For all his Robert Mitchum cool, Quinn and his associates seem borderline incompetent at best, which is actually somewhat realistic considering how dunder-headed the participants of most real world right wing conspiracies tend to be.
Much more problematic is the nature of the conspiracy itself. Thirty years ago the danger of subliminal messaging was still considered a viable threat to democracy, but today only the most ardent members of the tinfoil hat crowd refuse to concede that it’s essentially impossible to compel someone to do something that goes against their own desires and interests merely by exposing them to a series of subconscious signals. If an overt Coke commercial is unlikely to sway a diehard Pepsi drinker, a hidden one isn’t going to have any greater affect. These days it’s pretty much universally understood that it’s not the hidden messages in advertising that we have to worry about; it’s the explicit ones that do the most damage.
It doesn’t help that Agency presents us with the most low-rent of all possible subliminal media campaigns. Even in 1980, merely placing one commercial overtop another couldn’t have seemed that impressive, especially when compared to 1981’s Looker, a Michael Crichton film in which the same plot is accomplished via 3D computer generated models, cutting edge technology and an actual hypno-ray.
As a result of this, most people will likely choose to dismiss the film as a dated thriller without thrills, but I enjoyed its unusual comic tone and the fine character work by Majors (who never got to play this kind of character again) and Rubinek (who’s never played anything but this kind of character since). Plus where else are you going to get the chance to see The Six Million Dollar Fall Guy run bare-chested through a deserted Quebec country mansion, clad only in a pair of red long johns? Only in some sweet canuxploitation, that’s where!