Advertising creatives Philip Morgan (Lee Majors) and Sam Goldstein (Saul Rubinek) are uneasy when the agency they work for is purchased by mysterious billionaire Ted Quinn (Robert Mitchum). While Philip is busy salvaging a relationship with girlfriend Brenda Wilcox (Valerie Perrine), Sam does a little investigating into the motivation behind Quinn's top secret new ad campaign. He does not like what he finds. On a visit to Sam's apartment Philip makes a grisly discovery that motivates him to find out just what Quinn and his fellow conspirators are up to.
Based on a novel by Paul Gottlieb, the Canadian produced Agency arrived at the tail end of a decade obsessed with conspiracies. With movies having already scrutinized the government, big business and television among others the advertising industry must have seemed like the next logical step. Specifically subliminal advertising, a practice causing much consternation and debate at the time as to how effectively, if unscrupulously, it could be used to manipulate consumers. Gottlieb's novel took that already unsettling idea one step further pondering how corporations could use it to manipulate the democratic process.
Now, in an era of "deep fakes", fraudulent Facebook ads and relentless manipulation of digital media, such paranoia seems almost quaint. Nevertheless the root concept at the heart of Agency has some weight. It needed a Paddy Chayefsky or even a Michael Crichton to fashion a more incisive and nuanced satire. Instead Hungarian born director George Kaczender, working from a screenplay by Noel Hynd, proves strangely lackadaisical in getting to the core scary idea. Most of the film centres on erstwhile bionic Viking stuntman Lee Majors pottering about the office, trading trite witticisms with Saul Rubinek about the facile nature of the advertising game or whining endlessly about his ex-wife and non-committal girlfriend. Exciting, right? Only towards the very end do the actual ramifications of Quinn's dastardly plan rear their head. Even then the big reveal of his subliminal ad campaign is undercut by laughable psychedelic animation straight out of Yellow Submarine (1968). To be honest as a thriller this proves hard to take seriously from the get-go when it kicks off with a dive into literal disco hell with a montage of dancers in glittery body paint and devil horns shilling deodorant.
Kaczender's fumbled, pedestrian handling of the cod-Hitchcockian plot leaves no room to develop its potentially provocative ideas. It is an ugly looking film with a muddy, washed out colour palette familiar from Canadian-made slasher films that does little to enliven its tacky milieu. Meanwhile the whiny, self-absorbed protagonists are odd and unappealing, laden with insufferably 'sophisticated' dialogue rife with casual misogyny and homophobia. Lee Majors is a solid enough lead but unconvincing as an ad man while Robert Mitchum, in a dry run for his cat-obsessed television executive in Scrooged (1988), has a little more fun with a sardonic turn. It is odd though that Quinn never comes across like the ogre everyone makes him out to be. Eventually Agency bows out with a shrug of an ending that betrays the filmmakers' frustrating disinterest in their own story.