On a train bound for the Olympics at Berlin in 1936, former First World War air ace turned boxing coach Jo Cavalier (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is distracted from flirting with beautiful lady journalist Gaby Delcourt (Marie-France Pisier) by Simon (Rachid Ferrache), a little boy who asks for his autograph. When Gestapo officers discover the child is Jewish, Jo heroically intervenes eventually reuniting the orphan child with his surviving relatives the Rosenblums. The situation quickly escalates however forcing the quick-witted and tough Jo to tangle with police, Nazi storm-troopers and even Adolf Hitler (Günter Meisner) himself trying to help the Rosenblums escape Germany. Unfortunately as courageous and resourceful as Jo might be, his sense of direction is not the best...
With L'as des As (Ace of Aces) French superstar Jean-Paul Belmondo and then-reigning comedy auteur Gérard Oury delivered what stood for nine years as their home nation's highest-grossing movie. Repeating a feat hitherto achieved by Oury's previous wartime farce La Grande Vadrouille a.k.a. Don't Look Now... We're Being Shot At! which, adjusted for inflation, remains France's highest-grossing film. It is an achievement all the more remarkable given Ace of Aces could so easily have been a toe-curling misfire laden with bad taste. Juggling multiple, seemingly disparate tones, the film is part grandiose action spectacle with Belmondo performing his trademark daredevil stunts; part Mel Brooks style transgressive farce poking fun at the absurdities of Nazism; and part heartfelt drama about the plight of Jewish refugees. A mix only Oury could have pulled off, at least in the Eighties.
Buoyed along by an elegant score by Vladimir Cosma, Ace of Aces deftly interweaves slapstick sequences that hark back to classic screwball comedies, cutesy scenes involving an adorable bear cub and out-and-out surreal gags such as Belmondo's double-take as a pair of false teeth bark: "Heil Hitler!" For all its unrestrained silliness however the film crucially never loses sight of the seriousness of the Rosenblum family's plight. Nor the warmth inherent in the life-affirming relationship that develops between Simon and Jo. Belmondo plays Jo Cavalier comic book hero, larger than life, the ideal fantasy figure for an impressionable young lad like Simon, who sneers at the book-burning Nazis and wallops them into orbit. They are a classic comic pairing: resourceful rogue and wide-eyed innocent kid. Yet Oury, who co-wrote the script with his daughter Danièle Thompson and Horst Wendlandt, wisely avoid painting Jo as a saint. He is often exasperated with Simon, prone to lapses in judgement and sometimes tries to wriggle out of doing the right thing. Until convinced otherwise by Marie-France Pisier's spirited love interest. In the midst of so many buffoonish yet still menacing Nazis, the film touches on Jo's gentlemanly rivalry with former enemy ace-turned-best-buddy Von Beckmann (Frank Hoffmann). Beckman represents the decent people, sadly swept away by the tide of history, as he risks his own neck to help Jo and the Rosenblums escape.
Somehow the slapstick sits surprisingly well with the increasingly taut and suspenseful plot twist culminating in a riotous third act that sees Jo and the Rosenblums mistakenly hiding out at Hitler's Austrian retreat! Here, in a left-field conceit, Günter Meisner - best remembered as the odious Slugworth in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) - flexes his hitherto unsung comedy muscles in a second role in drag as Adolf Hitler's Eva Braun-hating sister Angela! Who naturally proves smitten with Jo. A hoot from start to finish the third act yields some of the film's funniest and conversely toe-curlingly tense moments. Particularly when the Rosenblums, mistaken for musicians, get the Nazis dancing to traditional Jewish tunes. Between inspired moments like these and a rip-roaring chase with Belmondo outracing a Nazi bike squad, Ace of Aces is an action-comedy to cherish.