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Film / The Man Who Knew Too Little

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Wallace: Was that a tear? ...How do you people do it? Did you... poke yourself in the eye? Or are you thinking right now: "My dog is dead"?
Lori: What's the matter with you? Are you enjoying this?
Wallace: Enormously. "My dog is dead." [pokes himself in the eye] "My dog is dead."

A 1997 film written by Robert Farrar (adapted from his novel Watch That Man) and starring Bill Murray and Alfred Molina, which combines And You Thought It Was a Game with Mistaken for Badass.

Wallace Ritchie (Murray) is an American vacationing in London, hoping to spend his birthday with his brother Jimmy (Peter Gallagher). Unfortunately, James has an important business dinner; in order to get rid of Wallace for the evening, he signs him up for an evening with the Theatre of Life, an experimental hyper-realistic audience-participation theater.

Wallace receives information, via a phone call, about the character he should play; unknown to him, the calls get mixed up, and he instead receives instructions intended for a real hit-man.

Wallace proceeds to ham his way through the underworld of secret agents and espionage. He almost immediately decides to break from "the script" and help the person he was ordered to kill: Lori (Joanne Whalley), a call-girl with a heart of gold who's trying to blackmail the Defence Minister she's been sleeping with. Along the way, Wally accidentally convinces his "superiors" that he's a loose cannon who knows of their devious scheme to restart the Cold War by blowing up the dignitaries at a historic peace accord. And all the while, Wallace thinks the bullets, Truth Serums, car chases and dead bodies are All Part of the Show.

It should be noted that, beyond the similar titles title which is obviously a reference (and superficial plot similarities), this film has nothing to do with Hitchcock's thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much.

This film provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: As described in the synopsis, Lori is a call girl once involved with the Defence Minister. Joanne Whalley's Star-Making Role in Scandal 1989 was as Christine Keeler, a real-life showgirl involved with, among others, John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War.
  • Affably Evil: Boris Blavasky. While he may be a ruthless hit-man, it's just his job. He's very happy with his other job as a butcher, and shows great respect for Wallace when he keeps evading his assassination attempts.
  • And You Thought It Was a Game: The basis of the film. Wallace inadvertently gets tangled in a real terrorist conspiracy without realizing it, as he believes the whole thing is staged.
  • Anonymous Public Phone Call: There is an inversion, where a British spy agency sends verbal instructions to their assassins and other agents by calling up a public phone booth at a predetermined time. What sets off the plot is when one of these calls goes wrong: The assassin is a few minutes late, and another guy picks up the phone and mistakes the instructions for part of the experimental LARP session he'd signed up for.
  • Anti-Climax Cut: In one scene, Wallace tells Lori that he's not completely a good guy, that if she wants his help, she'll have to do something for him. The dialogue is set up to make the viewer think Wallace is talking about sex... then the scene cuts to Wallace driving Lori's Mini Cooper. The joke is kind of ruined by the fact that they then have Wallace say, "Thanks for letting me drive."
  • Artistic License – Geography: Possibly an intentional use: during James' business presentation, the map of Germany is shown. The major cities are labeled... with the names of other German cities.
  • Axe Before Entering: Used as a blatant Shout-Out to The Shining. For extra points, he uses a croquet mallet, which is similar to what Jack Torrance used in the original novel.
  • Balcony Escape: Wallace prefers doing this for the film because its much more dramatic than the more conventional method. Since he isn't that strong, he has trouble doing it.
  • Bang, Bang, BANG: "Whoa that was loud."
  • The Baroness: Dr. Ludmilla Kropotkin averts the superficial aspects of the "evil lady torturer" stereotype. But Wallace's familiarity with that particular trope leads him to mistake the first septuagenarian dominatrix he meets for Dr. Kropotkin.
  • Black Comedy:
  • Blackmail Backfire: After learning about their plot due to pillow talk, Hooker with a Heart of Gold Lori is trying to blackmail Embleton and his fellow Spooks about their assassination plot. Predictably, they send an assassin to kill her, but she survives due to Wallace and the assassin accidentally getting each other's instructions.
  • The Butcher: Boris Blavasky. In this case, it has a dual meaning — "Butcher" because his work as a spy/hitman is so brutal and messy, but also because "butcher" is actually his day job.
    Sergei: Why so gloomy? Is better than being butcher.
    Boris: I like being butcher. You know exactly who you are killing... and why.
  • Cleanup Crew: Averted. Boris wants to use his favorite "messy" interrogation technique, but his assistants dissuade him, because "It is fun for you, but we have to clean up afterward!"
  • Contrived Coincidence: One right after the other. This movie pretty much runs on it.
  • Cringe Comedy: Many moments, but the scene where Wallace jokes about the dead body stands out in particular. From the perspective of Lori and of the audience, he's playing the death of a man for laughs right in front of his corpse.
  • Deadly Road Trip: When Wallace travels to the UK, he gets involved in an international conspiracy, a hitman is sent to kill him, and he gets mugged.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: After his assassination attempts of Wallace fails for the umpteenth time, Boris gains so much respect for him that he embraces Wallace, gives him a gun of sentimental value and announces his intention to retire and become a butcher full time.
  • Did the Earth Move for You, Too?: "Wow, that felt like an explosion."
  • Electric Torture: Dr. Kropotkin's preferred method.
  • The Fool: Wallace is ditzy enough to accidentally get involved in an international conspiracy without ever realizing what is really going on, and yet he manages to stop the terrorists' plot and avoid getting murdered by a hitman, among other streaks of pure dumb luck.
  • French Maid: Lori's costume in her introductory scene.
  • Germanic Depressives: At Jimmy's business dinner, he goes into a speech about how warm and welcoming the German people were to him. A German businessman quips, "You sure you were in Germany?"
  • Hey, Catch!: "You've got to see just how dead they are. They might be able to catch this!"
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Sir Roger and Sergei get blown up by their own bomb.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Lori, though she insists she's not a call-girl. Even though she accepted money for sex with the Minister of Defence. Perhaps she's quibbling over doing it regularly.
  • I Always Wanted To Do That: Knocking over traffic cones during a car chase.
  • Inspector Oblivious: Wallace has no idea that he stopped a plot to bomb a peace meeting.
  • Instant Sedation: The contract killers' sedative pens work instantly
  • Lingerie Scene: Lori's introduction shows her in lingerie.
  • Mistaken for Spies: Wallace is not a spy, but everyone mistakes him for one.
  • Not-So-Fake Prop Weapon: As Wallace believes everything is staged, he accidentally fires a real gun and almost shoots a man, thinking the gun was a prop.
  • Noble Top Enforcer: Soviet assassin Boris "The Butcher" (who works part-time as an actual butcher) shows a fair amount of respect for Wallace, treats his men well, and is unhappy about being told to kill people without knowing why. Eventually, he gets a Heel–Face Turn unlike his employers.
  • The Noun Who Verbed: "The Man Who Knew Too Little"
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Ninety-four solid minutes of this trope.
    Wallace: Aren't we both just acting? In the Theater of Life, I mean.
    Lori: ...I guess so.
  • Performance Anxiety:
    James: [Wallace] got the lead part in the school play, but on opening night... I never knew it was possible for someone to forget so much so quickly without a severe blow to the head.
  • Poor Communication Kills: The conspiracy falls apart because of their secrecy and failure to clearly communicate. One of the reasons why the main conspirators think Wallace is an American agent is that one fails to tell the other that Boris killed Spencer, not Wallace. The plumbers don't realize this either and assume Wallace killed him and wrongly reported it. Between that and Wallace's own antics, this leads them to make one assumption too many and panic. See Hoist by His Own Petard.
  • The Precarious Ledge: Played with and lampshaded: "There's a hallway! We can walk."
  • Professional Killer: Spencer, Boris, and The Plumbers. All are Hitmen rather than Assassins.
  • Reactive Continuous Scream: Happens when Wallace and Lori find a dead body.
  • Repeated Rehearsal Failure: At the beginning, Jimmy keeps rehearsing a presentation he's going to give at a business dinner that evening. He keeps flubbing one line, saying "Our greatest strength is our diversity," when it's supposed to be "Our greatest strength is our diversification." When it comes time to give the presentation for real, he messes up again and says "diversity"—but a phone call from his brother interrupts, so no one notices the flub.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: During the climax, Wallace has the bomb and seems poised to either discover it or prematurely detonate it in full view of the conspirators and dozens of VIPs. Defense Minister Embleton hurriedly flees the ballroom, to the frustration of his conspirators.
  • Seven Minute Lull: Jimmy is hurriedly trying to end a phone conversation with Wallace as he tells him how much fun it is working with Lori and how he's looking forward to his next scene with her. Wouldn't you know the dinner chatter dies down just as Jimmy loudly says, "Great! Do it with the girl and have a good time!"
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Often cited as a flaw in the film is that Wallace never realizes the whole thing is real, leaving the movie feeling like a long joke with some amusing bits along the way but no actual punchline. Even as the credits roll, he has two hard-as-nails spies acting out badly-remembered scenes from Cats, never realizing they're both scared out of their wits because he went Assassin Outclassin' apparently effortlessly and don't want to be next.
  • Sociopathic Hero: Viewing the events of the movie from the point of view of the actual spies can lead to a wildly different interpretation of Wallace. He comes off as an absurdly skilled (even by badass standards) rogue agent who is doing everything he does just for laughs, and that it's so easy for him, he can afford to goof around and just do whatever amuses him at the time. Among his many deeds include pretending like he's going to execute Lori for no reason whatsoever, playing with a dead body and applauding it for being so remarkably dead, and running over traffic cones while fleeing assassins, simply because he's always wanted to do it and now seemed like a good time. Basically, to those not in on the joke (everyone but Wallace), he might as well be the super-spy version of The Joker.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The man disguised as a waiter who approaches Wallace in the end of the film is addressed as "Venkman."
    • When Boris leaves his minions alone with Wallace he instructs them "...and watch that man." — referencing the source material of the film.
  • Spanner in the Works: Wallace represents this trope like no one else. Convinced that everything was one giant bit of role-play, Wallace manages to single-handedly convince a veteran assassin to retire and dismantles a covert international plan to escalate the Cold War, saving god knows how many people in the process.
  • Spy Speak: Wallace is told to "flush" Lori, i.e. kill her. Parodied shortly after when the government handlers ask Wallace if he flushed Lori and Wallace says that she went to the bathroom by herself, which they assume means she committed suicide.
  • Standard Snippet: Korobeiniki, a traditional Russian folk song, features in this film. Of course, most of you know it as "The Tetris Theme".
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: Once they witness Wallace's apparent badassery, pretty much everyone just smiles and goes along with whatever the idiot decides, thinking that kind of thing is just what crazy superspies do.
  • That Came Out Wrong: Boris the Butcher, searching for Wallace backstage where the Russian dancers are setting up, runs into the Camp Gay director.
    Director:: Excuse me, no entry without a pass.
    Boris: I am looking for a tall American man.
    Director: Aren't we all, darling. But I must ask you to leave.
  • That Russian Squat Dance: Goofier than most actual satires, as Wallace is cradling a bomb disguised as a Matryoshka doll. And manages to disarm it entirely by accident.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: Wallace expects Dr. Kropotkin, the "evil torturer lady", to look the part. She doesn't.
  • Truth Serum: Except no one believes Wallace when he's under the influence.
    Boris the Butcher: Who you are working for?
    Wallace Ritchie: Blockbuster Video, Des Moines Iowa.
    Boris the Butcher: Who you are working for?
    Wallace Ritchie: Blockbuster Video, Des Moines Iowa!
    Boris the Butcher: Damn! They train them so well!
  • Unusual Euphemism: In addition to the aforementioned "Remember to flush", there's "Spencer knows how to deal with floaters! Tell him to use a plunger or we're sunk!"
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Wallace's sister-in-law Barbara is last seen when the police raid her house looking for Wallace. She is never shown reuniting with her husband, finding out what happened, or being released from custody.
    • Daggenhurst's aide Hawkins disappears during the climax and isn't present when his boss and Sergei get blown up.
  • Why We Are Bummed Communism Fell: Sir Roger and Sergai's motivation. They were heads of British and Russian intelligence (respectively) and now they're collaborating to restart hostilities between their nations, because they have nothing else to do.
  • Worthy Opponent: Boris comes to feel this way about Wallace after getting thwarted enough times.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Everyone who sees Wallace soon comes to the conclusion they're dealing with a master spy with an uncanny ability to survive things and see him as either a hero or a Worthy Opponent. The idea that he has absolutely no clue what is really happening and thinks it's a game is impossible for them to imagine.