Plagued by numerous assassination attempts Swedish scientist Henrik Jacobsen (Karel Stepanek), ingenious inventor of a much-sought after anti-gravity device, seeks asylum in the United Kingdom. To keep Jacobsen safe from K.G.B. killers British Intelligence assign Charles Vine (Tom Adams), a former mathematician turned secret agent, licensed to kill and every bit as deadly as, you know, that other bloke: James somebody-or-other...
Oddly enough much as On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) did George Lazenby no favours with its opening line ("This never happened to the other fellow"), this low-budget James Bond cash-in made four years earlier keeps reminding both its hero and the audience there is another, far cooler MI6 agent out there. In fact that is the theme of the swinging title song performed by none other than Sammy Davis Jr. (according to ol' one-eye: "He's just as good as what's-his-name!"), which establishes a running gag somewhat at the expense of poor Charles Vine. Nonetheless this derivative British-made spy thriller sired its own surprisingly enduring franchise. Soap actor Tom Adams reprised the role in two sequels: Where the Bullets Fly (1966) and Somebody's Stolen Our Russian Spy (1969), though the latter went unreleased until 1976. While Canadian-born director and co-screenwriter Lindsay Shonteff, a stalwart of British exploitation fare, sat out those two he later re-branded the character as Charles Bind for three further films: Number One of the Secret Service (1977) starring Nicky Henson, License to Love and Kill a.k.a. The Man from S.E.X. (1979) with former New Avengers star Gareth Hunt, and finally Number One Gun (1990) with Michael Howe.
Initially released in British theatres as Licensed to Kill, a title sort of co-opted by a later proper James Bond film: License to Kill (1989) (was 'Cubby' Broccoli as secret Charles Vine fan?!), the film was purchased for its American release by legendary independent producer Joseph E. Levine. It was Levine who hired songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen to pen the theme song (later reprised, to ironic effect, in the 2011 remake of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as part of a massive promotional campaign. Along with re-titling the film The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World he also added a jokey pre-credits scene wherein a seemingly prim British nanny pulls a machine gun out of her pram to wipe out a score of presumably Russian agents. It strikes a tone not dissimilar from The Avengers although what unfolds actually keeps one foot in that whimsical camp and the other in a grittier, slightly more subdued style akin to The Ipcress File (1965) directed by Shonteff's good friend Sidney J. Furie.
Shonteff gets around the obviously low budget with some creative framing and handles the frenetic action scenes capably, if unspectacularly. Set entirely in a rather drab looking London the film leaves all that glamorous globe-hopping to Bond, confining its action and intrigue to cramped rooms or the Home Counties with occasional snatched verite-like shots of royal guardsmen outside Buckingham Palace. While Shonteff's somewhat televisual style occasionally leaves this looking like an episode of The Man from UNCLE the script does have in its favour a very quirky, deeply British sense of humour. Late in the game the plot springs a neat twist on a familiar Bondian conceit when a KGB assassin disguises himself as Charles Vine (allowing Tom Adams to show he can do a silly Russian accent with the best of them). There is also a laugh-out-loud moment later re-used in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) wherein a slinky Chinese femme fatale reveals she ain't no woman, baby! "Three more minutes and this could have been very embarrassing for both of us", remarks Vine. Shonteff has the good sense to follow a great gag with the film's most visceral fight scene.
Also to its credit the film has a Fleming-esque espionage plot that is appreciably complex despite resorting to various sinister conspirators - including a nicely sardonic Peter Bull - explaining things out loud rather than have Vine piece it together with any detective work. Alas the film's greatest liability is Charles Vine himself. As portrayed by a charmless Tom Adams, who whether icing a villain or romancing a beautiful lady maintains the same blank expression throughout, Vine comes across as a snide, mercenary upper class berk. Which only proves how far the charisma of someone like Sean Connery, or even Dean Martin and James Coburn, goes towards smoothing the icy misogyny and sadism inherent in a Sixties super-spy hero. In one fairly well-written tete-a-tete with Professor Jacobsen, Vine reveals he gave up mathematics because he discovered he much preferred money, fine living and easy sex. Which scarcely endears him to the audience although the twist ending ultimately reinforces his cynical worldview. The witty climax wherein conspirators start bumping each other off before Vine goes in guns blazing is amusing. However his final face-off with a nameless assassin in dark sunglasses, while fairly tense and well-staged, ends things on a damp note.