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Film / If Looks Could Kill

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Male teen fantasy wish-fulfillment story #1,991

Mariska: They're gonna kill your friends. They're gonna kill me. And they're gonna kill you.
Michael: Talk about peer pressure.

Mostly forgotten 1991 film in which (barely) high school graduate Michael Corben (Richard Grieco) of Detroit goes on a class trip to France and winds up being mistaken for an American CIA agent of the same name who is killed at the airport. Upon arrival he is immediately shanghaied into service by British Intelligence and partners with Mariska (Gabrielle Anwar), daughter of a former British operative, to stop Diabolical Mastermind Augustus Steranko (Roger Rees) from conquering all of Europe.

The film was written by Darren Star (pre-both Sex and the City and Beverly Hills, 90210), from a story by Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad, Night of the Creeps) and directed by William Dear (Harry and the Hendersons).

Has nothing to do with the song by band Heart.


  • Affectionate Parody: To an extent. While the story is more or less presented seriously, it isn't above occasionally poking fun at some of the tropes of the spy genre, but in a kindhearted way.
  • Air-Vent Passageway: How Michael and Mariska get from the dungeon to the gold foundry.
  • Animal Assassin: A scorpion is used in an attempt to kill Michael.
  • Artificial Limbs: Zigesfeld's golden robotic hand.
  • As You Know: Parodied in Michael's conversation with his father, Herb. Herb begins to tell Michael some things he's heard many times before and is clearly tired of, interrupting Herb halfway through to ask, "Dad, is this the 'no follow-through' speech?" An oblivious Herb replies, "That's right," and promptly continues as though he hadn't been interrupted.
  • Ax-Crazy:
    • The word "subtle" isn't in Zigesfeld's vocabulary - in fact, very little is in his vocabulary. For example, sent to kill Michael (and Areola) at his hotel, he just walks in and blows the place up with a rocket launcher.
    • Ilsa - an obvious nod to the Rosa Klebb variety of The Baroness - more than once tries to murder people at the slightest provocation. The first time, she's interrupted by the appearance of two airport security guards, and the second time, Steranko himself has to stop her.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Between Michael and Mariska, and to a lesser extent Kent and Melissa.
  • Billions of Buttons: On the Espirit. The gag is that none of them are labeled (apparently Intelligence followed a standardized design for them that the "real" Michael Corben would have known) and because of this Michael ends up accidentally triggering the car's weapons (saving him from Ziegsfeld) during the car Chase Scene (while looking for the one for the power windows).
  • Board to Death: Steranko's Establishing Character Moment is killing the French finance minister during one of this, in retaliation for the finance minister refusing to hand over his country's gold. Steranko's Evil Plan was to pull one of these on the leaders of every country on Europe.
  • Bond One-Liner:
    • After the guard in the dungeon as been blown up with the exploding chewing gum, leaving just his boots: "Looks like he stepped out."
    • After Steranko has been buried in his own horde of gold coins: "Keep the change."
  • Bottomless Magazines: Averted. Michael reloads his machine gun multiple times.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Michael is consistently shown to be a bright and clever young man, however never lives up to his full potential due to his desire to slack off. Even the film's Big Bad, Augustus Steranko, tells Michael to his face that while he (Michael) might have "good intentions", he doesn't "follow through".
  • The Cavalry: Subverted; Richardson and the British army show up after the villains have all been dealt with and the mansion destroyed.
  • Chase Scene: Various through the movie, but the interesting twist of the car chase is that Michael doesn't even knows it's happening — Mariska tries to warn him and Ziegsfeld tries to blow him up with the concealed weapons of his car, but Michael fights Ziegsfeld off with the concealed weapons of his car, which he doesn't actually knows he's activating while he tries to find the switch for the power windows amongst the Billions of Buttons.
  • Chekhov's Armory: As is standard of this type of movie, every device presented to Michael during his briefing ends up being used.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Vendetta Galante presents Michael with a tuxedo fitted with "standard hands-up protection." Later, upon being cornered by two of Steranko's Mooks while in the tux, Michael is told, "Put up your hands." He complies. Hilarity Ensues as knockout gas sprays from the armpits of the tux.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: About twenty minutes before Areola appears in person (and is shown to be in on Steranko's plan), she is seen in one of the pictures that Michael's handlers show him. The presence of two other bikini-clad women in the photo disguise her importance.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Subverted. When confronted by Zigesfeld, Michael initially attempts to retrieve a gun from a dead Mook rather than face his opponent hand to hand. This fails, though, when Zigesfeld grabs him from behind.
  • Convection, Schmonvection: Mrs. Grober and the French class spend an awful long time hanging in a cage over a giant vat of molten gold, apparently without the heat or fumes bothering them at all.
  • Cool Car: The red Lotus Esprit. Once Michael sees it, he stops insisting that he's a high-school student.
  • Coolest Club Ever: Almost too cool for Michael, as he needed to go get changed into a tuxedo before he was allowed in.
    Club Bouncer: Miseur, what I am trying to say is, you look like a piece of adolescent American dog shit.
    Michael: What?
    Club Bouncer: CHANGE YOUR CLOTHES!
  • Creator Cameo: Director William Dear as a scientist testing out a bomb-proof suit.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: That sure is one advanced robotic hand Steranko got made for Zigesfeld. Such a device would revolutionize the prosthetic industry and make Steranko a zillion times richer than he already is, but he would rather steal gold from common market nations as part of a harebrained scheme to unite Europe under his rule.
  • Death by Cameo: Singer Roger Daltrey appears as superspy Blade long enough to get his butt handed to him by Linda Hunt as Ilsa, who kills him using a necklace that unfurls into a whip.
  • Death by Looking Up: Or possibly Face Death with Dignity. Zigesfeld chooses to simply standing watching the cage dropping towards him instead of moving out of the way.
  • Deconstruction: Of spy fiction. At first, Michael is ecstatic about the mission (once he finally does accept it). But it isn't long before he finds out being a spy isn't all fun and glamor like it is in the movies, and he understandably reacts by trying to back out after multiple attempts are made on his life.
    Michael: That's it! I'm out!
  • Diabolical Mastermind: Augustus Steranko. The Evil Plan was all his idea.
  • Dies Wide Open: Happens to British superspy Blade at the beginning.
  • Disney Death: When Steranko's mansion blows up, everyone thinks Michael and Mariska have died. Poor Mrs. Grober wonders despairingly what she's going to tell Michael's mother, only to have the pair emerge from the fiery ruins unscathed. Cue the cheering.
  • The Dragon: Ilsa. Interestingly, she loved killing people for Steranko and tries to use that to keep Steranko from killing her.
  • Drop Dead Gorgeous: Averted; Corben gets a Fan Disservice moment when the beauty he hoped to sleep with is turned into a charred corpse by a rocket explosion (Michael was in the bathroom looking for a condom). Though she was actually trying to kill him with a scorpion.
  • Dude, She's Like in a Coma: Kent tries to lick Melissa's ear while she's asleep in the seat next to him.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: The Eiffel Tower can be seen both during the car chase after Michael first leaves British Intelligence's secret headquarters and outside his hotel room window later, even though both locations are miles apart.
  • '80s Hair: Proof that the 80's briefly bled over into the 90's.
  • Fearsome Foot: When Michael is climbing the cliff to the chateau, and Zigesfeld's feet come into frame.
  • Femme Fatale: Steranko's arm candy, Areola Canasta.
  • Fictional Country: Orenbourg, which seems to be a slight Expy of any number of Germanic countries. Though there is a real Orenbourg, it's a Russian city.
  • French Jerk: The doorman at the casino. Averted with most of the other French characters however. Generally except for the casino doorman most of the French people encountered in the film are quite nice.
  • Gratuitous French: Unsurprising, considering it's mostly set in France and is about a French class. Mrs. Grober in particular loves speaking French whenever she can find an excuse.
  • Gratuitous German: The German finance minister says some stock German phrases, as does the guy left to guard Michael and Mariska in the dungeon (things like "Mach schnell!" and so forth).
  • Helicopter Blender: When Steranko's getaway chopper crashes, the rotor section detaches and chases after Michael and Mariska like a giant buzzsaw.
  • Hellish Copter: Michael machine guns the bottom right out from under it during the Short-Lived Aerial Escape, sending all of its gold cargo ( and Steranko, who ends up being crushed to death by said gold) dropping to the roof before falling down itself (and then the propeller rips itself off and chases after Michael and Mariska).
  • Hero of Another Story: While the main hero is Michael, Mariska has been trailing Steranko for some time and explains his entire plot to him.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Steranko, who ends up dying by being buried alive by the tons of gold coins he just had to overload his helicopter with.
    • Areola ends up getting stung by her own pet scorpion, with which she tried to kill Michael.
  • Image Song: an early non-anime example. If you listen carefully to the lyrics, the song that plays over the end credits, 'If Looks could Kill' is actually from Michael's POV and about his Character Development.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Steranko's Mooks.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Michael fires around a corner without looking and hits one of Steranko's Mooks dead center in the chest. Somehow.
  • Improvised Weapon: A tea tray is used to murder the French finance minister.
  • Ironic Echo:
    • Both Michael's father and Steranko scold Michael for having "No follow-through."
    • In a moment of high tension, Michael tells Steranko that he'll nail his ass to the wall, a threat Steranko scoffs at. In a later scene, Steranko puts the threat back to Michael before the final fight.
  • Kick the Dog: You would think the people managing Michael's school would have warned him that he's not gonna graduate because he failed French long before he had to go through the ceremony and open his diploma to see the huge "INCOMPLETE" stamp on it.
  • Late to the Party: The British military shows up at the end after the villains have already been defeated.
  • Letting the Air out of the Band: Happens to the band playing "Pomp and Circumstance" in the opening scene when Michael opens his diploma to find a huge "INCOMPLETE" stamp and a text explaining that he didn't pass French class on it.
  • Load-Bearing Boss: Ziegsfeld ends up falling on the vat full of molten gold during the Final Battle, and somehow this (and some amount of super-cooling) brings the melting mechanism so haywire than it blows up the whole mansion.
  • Loves Only Gold: Steranko, to the point that Ilsa doesn't even have a chance when Steranko is forced to decide between her and the gold in order to make his helicopter lighter in order to escape, and when Corben shoots the chopper's underside and the gold starts to fall off, he tries to stop this even if it means falling off the chopper himself (or keeping his hands on the controls).
  • Man of Wealth and Taste: Steranko wears some nice suits.
  • Market-Based Title: This movie is also known as Teen Agent in some places. Richard Greico said in promotional interviews that he preferred the original title, since it was more classic James Bond style.
  • A Molten Date with Death: Happens to Zigesfeld when the cage which had held the French class lands on him and knocks him into the vat of molten gold.
  • Mistaken for Badass: The whole plot, in a nutshell. Not only does Michael Corben get mistaken for American superspy Michael Corben, but Mrs. Grober is somehow assumed to be a top-notch agent code-named "The French Teacher" by all sides.
  • The Mole: Kelly, one of the British Intelligence agents, is working for Steranko.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: What Ilsa has Zigesfeld do to Areola for her.
  • No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You to Dine: Steranko insists on eating dinner with Michael after he's been captured.
  • Not Afraid to Die: Michael tells himself this. Or at least he tries.
    Michael: I'm not afraid to die. I'm not afraid to die. Who am I kidding?
  • Not What It Looks Like: A beautiful female assassin is sent to kill Corben, but while he's run off to get condoms she accidentally drops the scorpion she was going to kill him with down her dress. Meanwhile a rival assassin peeks through the keyhole and sees her bouncing up and down on the bed trying to shake the scorpion off. Assuming she's having sex with his target, he decides to blow them both up with a rocket launcher.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted Trope, and it is this aversion that starts the whole plot.
  • The Only One: Michael is untrained and has no idea what he's doing. But past a certain point, he is literally the only person who can save everyone, and he rises to the challenge of being the teen super spy everyone thinks he is admirably.
  • Ordinary High-School Student: What Michael really is. By the time the movie ends, he graduates with honors from the Action Survivor academy.
  • Pair the Spares: Subtly implied with Kent and Melissa at the end.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner:
    • Trying to get the guard to step on the exploding gum: "Double your pleasure, double your fun!"
    • While shooting at the helicopter: "Time to cash it in, Steranko!"
    • Mrs. Grober while stopping Steranko's party: "The bar's closed!"
  • Punch! Punch! Punch! Uh Oh...: Let's just say that Michael wouldn't win in a straight-up fight against Ziegsfeld, and Michael discovers this the hard way.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Zigesfeld. Something is clearly wrong with the guy. He is both childlike and violent, suggesting some sort of developmental disorder. He's very feral and violent and rarely speaks except to growl, but also behaves like a simple little boy around Ilsa, who he seems to regard as some kind of mother figure.
  • Red Baron: "The French Teacher", super-secret agent, so top-secret that nobody has ever heard of her... in reality Mrs. Grober, an actual French teacher. It Makes Sense in Context.
  • Refusal of the Call:
    • Initially, Michael is your typical teenager in such a situation - scared and confused and hesitant to cooperate with the agents. He flatly refuses to do what they say... until he sees the Cool Car, that is. Then he's all too happy to go on the mission.
    • This is then inverted - once Steranko's assassins start trying to kill him, he Refuses The Call again and intends to back out and run off. It's only after he meets Mariska that he realizes the full scope of what's at stake, and agrees to help her avenge her father.
  • Right Hand Versus Left Hand: A major theme of the movie is the good guys and bad guys not communicating properly, backstabbing one another, or just not cooperating.
  • Scary Black Man: Agent Kramer is presented in this manner.
  • Scary Scorpions: Areola tries to kill Michael with one at the hotel.
  • Short-Lived Aerial Escape: Steranko attempts to leave in a helicopter at the end, but is shot down by Michael and Mariska using Uzis.
  • Sigil Spam: Steranko's awesome-looking scorpion emblem is on literally everything associated with him, from the coins he mints to his helicopter.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Averted. Michael and Mariska almost kiss after she hits him a couple of times, but they're interrupted by a Mook at the door.
    Cell Guard: Very touching.
  • The Smart Guy: Mariska helps explain Steranko's plan to Michael.
  • Smoldering Shoes: When the guard in the dungeon is killed with the exploding gum, only his smoking boots and Uzi are left behind.
  • Spy Fiction: Of the Martini variety (with some bathroom Gin), often veering into Affectionate Parody at times.
  • Sticky Shoes: One of the spy gadgets Michael is given is a pair of sneakers with concealed suction cups on the soles to climb walls (and they don't quite stick). The sneakers get used in the final act when Michael and Mariska have to escape the rooftop of Steranko's exploding lair and the only way to do it is to climb down a sheer wall (the sneakers fail and they end up sliding down, although they Outrun the Fireball as well).
  • Super Window Jump: Done rather impressively by Blade at the beginning after fighting his way through Steranko's Mooks.
  • Technical Pacifist: Steranko initially abhors killing and sends his henchmen to kill for him. By the end of the movie he subverts the trope and kills Ilsa himself.
  • Teen Superspy: What everybody assumes Michael to be. The British lampshade this Trope via assuming that he's probably Older Than They Look.
  • Terrifying Pet Store Rat: That scorpion used to try and kill Michael at the hotel? It's a harmless emperor scorpion. They're sold in pet stores across the world.
  • Thrown from the Zeppelin:
    • During the Board to Death scene at the beginning, Steranko and French finance minister Lafevre have this exchange, leading to the latter's demise:
      Lafevre: France's gold must remain in France.
      Steranko: Well, I'm very sorry you feel that way.
    • A much more literal interpretation of this occurs when Steranko throws Ilsa out of their helicopter.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Michael's classmates. They continually ignore their constantly changing bus drivers and ultimately wind up caged over a giant vat of molten gold.
    • Additionally, the German finance minister, upon learning of Steranko's evil plan (because Steranko tells him), boldly threatens, "I'll tell the world!" While in Steranko's house. Surrounded by Steranko's Mooks. Small wonder he's last seen getting dragged off to an implied offscreen demise.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Mrs. Grober. From meek schoolteacher who lets herself get bullied by Steranko, to grabbing an Uzi and crashing his party very noisily. She even captures several of his Mooks in the climax.
  • Trojan Gauntlet: Corben struggling to open the metal tube of COMBAT CONDOMS, unaware the woman he wants to sleep with is actually an assassin. It saves him from getting blown up by Ziegsfeld, though.
  • The Un-Favourite: Michael's parents (his father especially) clearly prefer his younger brother Brad. However, they don't treat him badly and his father tells him he loves him and just wishes he'd be more productive.
  • United Europe: The ultimate aim of Steranko's Evil Plan is to create this with himself as its leader.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Steranko believes that, with him in charge, Europe will become an even greater superpower than it is now. All it needs be done is kill everybody that gets in the way...
  • Victimized Bystander: The snobby French doorman.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Steranko is one of the richest men in Europe and a high-class philanthropist, when in reality he wants to take over Europe.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • When Krupp defies Steranko, the Big Bad explicitly stops Ilsa from killing him and merely orders his guards to take Krupp away, but Krupp is never seen or mentioned again.
    • Kelly disappears from the movie after being thrown off of the bus by Zigesfeld.
  • Whip of Dominance: Steranko personal assistant and assassin Ilsa Grunt is a ruthless, sadistic, and cold woman whose weapon of choice is a whip that she usually wears like an unassuming necklace, but can unfurl into a razor-sharp metallic bullwhip.
  • X-Ray Vision: Built into the sunglasses. He uses it to cheat at the casino to see the next card, before being told to stop looking degenerate.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Steranko does this to Ilsa at the end.
  • You Killed My Father: Said verbatim to Steranko by Mariska (although it was actually Ilsa who did it).
    Ilsa: No, dearie, I killed your father!
  • You're Insane!:
    • After hearing about his plan to conquer Europe, Finance Minister Krupp declares that Steranko is mad.
    • When Michael claims that Steranko is the villain, Richardson dismissively says that Michael is mad. Gadgeteer Genius Galante then asks "But what if he isn't?