In 1949, four years before Ian Fleming created James Bond, French novelist Jean Bruce gave the world his own version of the suave, womanising super-spy, in the form of Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, codename OSS 117. Some seven or eight years later (sources disagree), Bonisseur was given his own film series beginning with OSS 117 Is Not Dead. Being French, the films were at a bit of a disadvantage when Albert R. Broccoli produced Dr. No in 1962, ushering in what would prove to be one of the longest-running and most successful film franchises in history, and though OSS 117 movies were still being made into the 1970s, the character's shot at international fame was essentially dead from the moment Sean Connery slipped on a tuxedo.

Flash to 2006, as OSS 117 received his very own version of Casino Royale - no, not the gritty franchise-rebooting one, the other one - in the form of OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, a delirious spoof of 1960s Eurospy pictures currently spinning its way through the art house cinemas of these United States. In the film, set in 1955, Jean Dujardin plays the super-spy, on a mission to find what happened to the deceased OSS 283, Jack Jefferson and the missing Soviet arms shipment on the freighter Kapov, while fighting anti-colonial Islamic terrorists and foreign agents looking for the same arms shipment, and seducing beautiful women.

It doesn't take any sort of familiarity with the character (I had none), or even a particular affinity for the genre it so ruthlessly needles to conclude that this is just about the first laugh-out-loud comedy to come out this year - as well as an embarrassing reminder that anything we can do, the French can do better. After all, it's been mere weeks since the mega-budget Get Smart tried to cover virtually identical ground, petering out as nothing more than a modestly amusing kiddie flick.

The differences between Get Smart and Cairo, Nest of Spies are many, from budget to the visual language to the intended audience, but at the core of the question "why is the one hilarious and the one is vaguely charming?" we find that age-old difference between the Americans and the French: that the French are mean-spirited bastards. I say this only with love. See, the humor in the OSS 117 film all springs from the audience's delight in watching a James Bond surrogate - cool, superior, classy - failing at nearly every turn, proving to be a jackass who only wins through sheer luck. American comedy simply isn't comfortable going so far in mocking its protagonists; exhibit A is obviously theUS version of The Office, which is cruel and cringe-inducing without a doubt, but compared to its British predecessor it practically lionises its characters. The original TV series Get Smart did something similar to Cairo, Nest of Spies, showing up the suave Bond-model spy as a buffoon, but it was never so eager to humiliate Maxwell Smart as the current subject is to show how terrible OSS 117 is as a spy and a human being.

Not that the humor is acidic or uncomfortable; in fact, it's one of the goofiest things to come down the pike in a long while, featuring among other moments a scene where OSS 117 fights an assassin by throwing live chickens at him, or a gag where he spends some four minutes underwater untying himself from a death-trap, with enough air left over to carefully adjust his tie before ascending. There's more than a hint of Airplane! in the film's joke-a-minute pace, and tendency to fill the moments that aren't jokes with unbridled silliness.

And despite all of this, it manages to find time for some honest-to-God satire, some of it overt and a bit too obvious (OSS 117 declares that because of the success of his mission, Egypt will enjoy peace for hundreds of years), some of it biting and insightful: in particular, the recurrent joke where the spy, as representative of Western imperialism, can't understand why the Arab world won't re-order itself around his sensibilities. One of the two women he crosses paths with, his assistant Larmina (Bérénice Bejo) is a devout Muslim and patriotic Egyptian; in his most sensitive moments, he is merely baffled by her "idiotic" religion, when he isn't actively trying to seduce her into leaving all of her past behind for Frankification. Elsewhere in the film, OSS 117 can be found climbing to the top of a minaret to beat up a muezzin for daring to give the call to prayer when the spy was still trying to sleep.

Mostly, Cairo, Nest of Spies simply tries to demolish the mythology of masculine colonialist thought that gives rise to the very idea of super-spydom in the first place, and it is in this mostly successful; OSS 117 is ultimately revealed to be so incompetent and so easy to mock that one can hardly imagine going back to enjoy James Bond unironically. And what else should parody do, if not fundamentally change how we think about the original?

While all the rest of this is going on, the film just so happens to benefit from an extremely dedicated re-creation of its period film style. Opening with a scene set in 1945 that looks exactly like a Hollywood film from the '40s - the same just slightly soft focus, the same glowing whites - it proceed to recreate, in exhausting detail, the style of the 1960s Eurospy genre. The film stock is desaturated just right, the camera movements are perhaps a slight exaggeration, but generally in the spirit of "we just invented racking zoom lenses!" that so saturated 1960s filmmaking. Even the acting looks like it did back in those days, and I am much in awe of director Michel Hazanavicius for the totality with which he recreated an entire cinematic vocabulary. If there were nothing else to recommend the film, its ingenious style would be all it would take to justify its existence; happily, that style is just the icing on top of a truly wicked, smart parody of an entire generation of action movies, a satire as deadly as it is hysterical.