Two scientists working on an alternative energy source are murdered. Fearing the same fate, their colleague Coleman (Marcel Charvey) undergoes plastic surgery and escapes to Casablanca but is waylaid by secret agent Bob Fleming (Richard Harrison). Whereupon the C.I.A. smuggle Coleman via coffin to a safe-house in Geneva. Meanwhile Fleming poses as the scientist in order to draw out the assassins whom it turns out work for crippled, cigar-chomping Texas oil billionaire Tommy Sturges (Aldo Cecconi). He also contacts Coleman's wife, Terry (Susy Anderson), hoping to reunite her with her husband. Which turns out to be a big mistake.
Killers Are Challenged, a.k.a. A 077 Sfida Ai Killers a.k.a. Bob Fleming... Mission Casablanca, was the second Italian-made Eurospy outing for American actor Richard Harrison as super-spy Bob Fleming (see what they did there, James Bond fans?). Following Secret Agent: Fireball (1965) by Luciano Martino, here credited as producer. In later years Harrison liked to joke that his sole contribution to cinema was turning down the role that eventually went to Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Sure, the umpteen cut-and-paste ninja movies he subsequently made with el cheapo schlock producer Godfrey Ho made him something of a joke among bad film buffs. Yet Harrison's Italian period is littered with minor B-movie gems like Gladiators 7 (1962), $100,000 for Ringo (1965), Fantabulous Inc. (1967), Churchill's Leopards (1970) and, yes, Killers Are Challenged.
That said the quality of the film has little to do with Harrison's stiff performance. Introduced with little fanfare, Bob Fleming comes across a rather brusque character: all action, no-nonsense. Nor much charm. At one point he karate chops an old man for mouthing off. If the hero underwhelms the surrounding film compensates with well-paced action, intrigue and charm. Antonio Margheriti was among the handful of genre-hopping Italian exploitation workhorses that really knew their stuff. Regardless of genre his films tend to flow better than most. Here Margheriti fills the frame with spectacular scenery. Working with a witty script by prolific giallo scribe Ernesto Gastaldi, his creative direction and stylish visuals imbue the action with a comic book flair. One of the more intriguing ideas at work here is that villain is not some foreign power but an unscrupulous oil tycoon with a plausible motive for trying to halt the discovery of an alternative energy source.
Margheriti does indulge in an unfortunate penchant for silly gags. Among them a British comic relief cabbie who once worked for Scotland Yard but now drives a taxi inexplicably laden with gadgets. There is also a ridiculous bar room brawl involving a group of drunken sailors along with a scrap-happy midget who helps Bob out of a jam. Some of this nonsense anticipates the campy direction taken by the James Bond series under the tenure of Jolly Roger Moore. Nevertheless the plot is less outlandish than most Eurospy films from this period. It keeps the focus on espionage and suspense in the manner of From Russia with Love (1963). For all Bob Fleming's lack of personality he acquits himself admirably as a secret agent, outwitting enemies in creative ways. Gastaldi's script pulls off a few neat twists including the reveal of who is really pulling the strings.
Another notable aspect is the film's plethora of striking, mildly unconventional female characters. Along with bouffant blonde Wandisa Guida who also graced Margheriti's Lightning Bolt (1965) we have sexploitation star Janine Reynaud as an evil henchwoman, Maryse Guy Mitsuoko (the former striptease artist who appeared briefly in the opening scene of Thunderball (1965)) getting whipped in her lingerie as a flustered enemy agent, and especially Susy Anderson as the deliciously duplicitous bikini babe Vicky. Seemingly Tommy's moll, Vicky tricks Bob one moment then the next saves his life, keeping both him and viewers guessing as to where her allegiance truly lies. She also undercuts the smug hero with the memorable put-down: "I've been kissed better than that by my daschund." Ouch. Take that, Bob.
Bob Fleming (with the emphasis on the phlegm) was also the name of the Jack Hargreaves-esque Charlie Higson character on The Fast Show who kept ruining his rustic television programme by coughing a lot. It was funnier than it sounds.