Barring Nicolas Cage’s cameo in “Grindhouse,” the Sax Rohmer character of evil genius Dr. Fu Manchu hasn’t graced the silver screen since Peter Sellers played him in the 1980 parody, “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu.” The movie is a failure, but a noble one.
Now available through the burn-on-demand Warner Archive line, the comedy that’s not all that comedic concerns Fu Manchu turning 168 years old and wanting to replenish the elixir that keeps him alive. This mission entails the theft of a rare diamond — shades of “Pink Panther” — which is simple enough, given the help of a robot spider.
Sellers plays Fu Manchu, yet he also plays the man’s nemesis, do-gooder Nayland Smith. Now retired and enjoying yard work and pipe smoking, Smith is coerced to bring Fu Manchu down, once and for all. This time, Smith has help in a newly recruited undercover policewoman (Helen Mirren) who really just wants to sing and dance. That shared love of musical theater with Fu Manchu makes her switch sides.
It all ends with a nonsensical musical number featuring Fu Manchu decked out as Elvis Presley — a gag beneath Sellers’ abilities, making it all the more miserable that he never got a chance to redeem himself, having died just before this “Plot” was let loose on an unsuspecting — and unresponsive — public.
For a film co-produced by Hugh Hefner, “Fiendish Plot” is decidedly tame and unsexy. (Mirren, for the record, is far more attractive now than she was then.) The production was reportedly troubled, and it shows, with jokes hitting the ground just as soon as they leave characters’ mouths, and situations being set up for no payoff. At least the film looks pretty good — it’s splashy and colorful, even if the effects are rather dated, particularly in the house that takes flight in the third act. It’s the only element that does. —Rod Lott