Brimming over with comic book zest and Bond-styled cool, Mario Bava's "Danger: Diabolik" is sure to satisfy popcorn culture devotees with both its enduring entertainment value and its delightfully dated sense of fashion and sophistication. Though released in 1968, the film has a determinedly playful, mid-sixties sensibility – the '60s of the Monkees and "Our Man Flint" rather than the '60s of the Doors and "Easy Rider."
Based on a popular Italian comic book series, "Danger: Diabolik" stars John Phillip Law as super-villain Diabolik. Dressed in a smashingly impractical leather ninja outfit (so firmly plastered over his mouth that his facial features are still visible), he plots and executes the kind of impossible heists that even good, church-going folk see in a glamorous light. He's a terrorist as well, though one suspects his blowing up of tax offices and government buildings carried far less dread (and realism) in that pre-9/11 era. Indeed, there is never a doubt that the filmmakers want the audience to root for this master criminal, nor much doubt that viewers will happily go along for the ride.
Essentially Diabolik is Batman as a bad guy. He is wealthy beyond belief, extremely intelligent, a master of gadgets, and has great physical prowess rather than super-human powers. He even has his own batcave-like secret hideout. But where Batman obsesses on injustice, Diabolik lives simply to pull of the next great heist, frustrate the police tracking him, stick it to "the man," and enjoy his decadent lifestyle with his gorgeous gal pal Eva Kant.
John Phillip Law (best know for his role in another '60s European comic adaptation, "Barbarella") and Marisa Mell were clearly cast more for physical qualities than great acting skills, but they both bring what's needed to the party. With the majority of his face covered by his costume, Law makes the most of his eyes, using them to great theatrical effect. His maniacal laugh, heard just as the opening credits role, is another welcome and over-the-top touch. And Mell plays his seductive partner in crime with such panache that it's hard to think of any of the famous "Bond girls" who could rival her allure.
Those early Bond films inform "Danger: Diabolik" almost as much as "Batman" (both the comic and the campy TV show). From the road races and speedboat chases to the thrilling escapes of the title character, it's clear producer Dino De Laurentiis was trying to capture that 007 flair. Through the skillful direction of Bava, he did exactly that. The striking production design and art direction, combined with some fantastic matte paintings by Bava himself, make this modestly budgeted feature every bit as eye-catching as the more fully bankrolled Bond films.
Like Bond, sex appeal plays a big part here as well. Though neither Law nor Mell ever appear completely in the buff, the film teases the audience with several scenes in which the "naughty parts" are just out of view. Most memorably, there is the amusing scene in which the criminal lovers roll about in a massive, twirling bed, covered in millions of ill-gotten dollars.
Though the films themselves are little-known to younger viewers, the candy-colored sets and "sex kitten" eroticism of movies like "Danger: Diabolik," "Our Man Flint" and "Modesty Blaise" have been parodied with great popularity in Mike Myers' Austin Powers films. Yet, there's a lot more than camp value in "Danger: Diabolik."
The comic book style is effectively translated to the screen and while the screenplay will never be confused with great writing, the cops-and-robbers plot pulls you in. To compare it to two of this summer's comic book blockbusters, it will never rank with "Batman Begins" but it's a heck of a lot more fun than "Fantastic Four." In addition to the non-stop eye candy (including the lead performers), European movie buffs will enjoy seeing the admirably serious performance of French screen veteran Michel Piccoli ("Contempt," "La Belle Noiseuse") as the top cop on Diabolik's trail and the goofy performance of British comedy favorite Terry-Thomas as a clueless government official.
Bava would return to the horror genre he made his name with after completing "Danger: Diabolik," but for its dazzling imagery alone this film deserves to be mentioned along with his famous chillers as an example of this influential visual stylist working near the top of his game.
Paramount's "Danger: Diabolik" DVD offers a superb transfer of the film along with several excellent supplemental features. John Phillip Law and Bava biographer Tim Lucas provide an audio commentary, there is a short documentary tracing the history of the comic and the film, and a hilarious 1998 Beastie Boys video for the song "Body Movin'" that incorporates footage from the movie. Beastie Boy Adam Yauch even provides a commentary for the video. A couple of theatrical trailers round out a fine package.
As a final note, those caught up in the look and flavor of "Diabolik" should also check out "CQ" (2001), an underrated film by Roman Coppola (Francis Ford's son) that takes an affectionate look at that style of filmmaking, including a few images lifted directly from Bava's film. It's a very fun movie in its own right, worthy of a future DVDetour.
Films featured in DVDetours™ may be difficult to find at many video stores but are widely available from some of the online rental services, such as Netflix, Green Cine, QwikFliks and Blockbuster Online. Inventories vary from company to company and DVDetours has no connection to any of these services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund