Fourth and final in the Matt Helm series, The Wrecking Crew is a curious beast in that it’s the most ramshackle entry, yet tries to make more of an effort. Lifting only its title from what was actually Donald Hamilton’s second Matt Helm novel, the plot vaguely echoes Goldfinger (1964) as suave supervillain Count Massimo Contini (Nigel Green) and his babelicious hit-woman Linka Karensky (Elke Sommer, reunited with Green after the engaging Deadlier than the Male (1966)) hijack a fortune in gold bullion with the intent to collapse the world economy.
So the call goes out to Matt Helm (Dean Martin), first seen asleep in a meadow (?), surrounded by his scantily clad Slaygirls, daydreaming about, er… his scantily clad Slaygirls. In the first of several gags that grow dull and repetitive, Dean romances one after the other by crooning spoof versions of his Easy Listening hits. Incidentally, the theme song by Mack David Devol is a hideous faux Oriental number, but the overall soundtrack by Hugo Montenegro is excellent. Roused from his stupor, Matt is chauffeured away by his boss Macdonald (John Larch, replacing James Gregory who refused to take a pay cut) who sends him to Copenhagen to trace the stolen gold. Here, Matt is himself trailed by Chinese spies working for Contini’s top assassin, Yu Rang (Nancy Kwan) and further hindered by klutzy, bespectacled travel agent Freya Carlson (poor, lovely Sharon Tate) who may be more than she seems…
Director Phil Karlson, who made the excellent crime thriller The Phenix City Story (1955) before settling into bizarre schlock like Hornets’ Nest (1970) and Ben (1972), returned to the fold after helming the inaugural Matt Helm spy spoof The Silencers (1966), while regular screenwriter Herbert Baker (who wrote scripts for The Dean Martin Show) sat this one out. In his place, hardboiled detective novelist William McGivern crafts a plot that is less overtly fantastical than previous entries, if no less frothy, and tries to give Dean something more to do besides ogle hot chicks in miniskirts and trade boozy quips.
But the star’s heart clearly isn’t in it. Most of his half-hearted gags fall flat, he croons spoof songs that become a weird sort of Greek chorus by revealing his thoughts, and mostly rolls his eyes at Freya’s clumsiness. However, Dino shows some grit in the fight scenes choreographed by a pre-stardom Bruce Lee. They’re nothing to write home about, but a few nifty moves, a winning car chase and the all-action climax go some way towards keeping us entertained. Lookout also for a young Chuck Norris during the fistfight at the “House of Seven Joys”, which leaves this and Way of the Dragon (1972) among the few watchable films he has made.
Perhaps to compensate for Dean Martin’s lacklustre performance, The Wrecking Crew features the most fetching female co-stars of any Matt Helm movie, all outshining their leading man. Nancy Kwan is saddled with a comedy name, but is vivacious and lovely in her psychedelically patterned outfits; Elke Sommer - introduced with in typical Matt Helm subtlety, with a close-up on her exposed thighs - makes a magnificently breathy femme fatale; Gilligan’s Island star Tina Louise appears as Lola Medina, an exotic dancer-turned-informant who models a succession of see-through nightgowns before winding up on the wrong end of an exploding bottle of Scotch (we’ve all been there); and Sharon Tate is sweetly endearing as the hopeless Freya Carlson - who does the whole “why Miss Jones you’re beautiful” bit when she strips down to a flimsy minidress for a bizarre, booty-shaking interlude.
We’ve mentioned before how Matt Helm movies have elements that foreshadow the Roger Moore Bond movies. Tate’s character resembles Britt Ekland’s inept Mary Goodnight from The Man from the Golden Gun (1975), but at least she handles herself well during a brief girl-on-girl with Nancy Kwan. Collectively, the actresses seem determined to keep the party swinging, even if the host isn’t up for it. The ending even resembles Moonraker (1979) as despite looking like he’s ready to slap her half the time, our hero proves it's impossible to resist Sharon Tate in a velvet negligee.
Despite a caption stating Matt Helm will return in The Ravagers, and plans for a “Matt Helm meets Tony Rome” movie co-starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin called it day after this entry. However, Tony Franciosa played a deadly serious Matt Helm in a far less fun 1975 TV series that unsurprisingly did not catch on. The Wrecking Crew has more than its share of detractors, but is never less than watchable, more so than A View to a Kill (1985) and feels like a wayward hymn to the age of cocktails, canoodling and craziness.