To those who aren't familiar with the famed Astérix comic book series, there are certain disadvantages to seeing the sequel first. Whereas the original film took great pains to adequately introduce Gallic heroes Astérix (Christian Clavier) and Obélix (Gérard Depardieu), and to establish the Roman era milieu in which they lived, the sequel wastes no time in getting its antics underway, making it potentially difficult for newcomers to orient themselves to the particulars of magic potions, druids and historical puns. By the half-hour mark, though, nearly everyone should have begun piecing together the relevant particulars, even if the broader details don't quite make perfect sense.
In this adventure Astérix and Obélix find themselves far from home, though still at odds with Julius Caesar (writer/director Alain Chabat). In a strictly mercenary action they wind up working for Cleopatra (Monica Bellucci) by way of an inept architect named Numérobis (Jamel Debbouze) who has been given the unenviable task of helping his queen win a virtually impossible bet with the Roman Emperor. He has precisely three months to build a temple in Caesar's honor that rivals anything built in Rome, or die. The only way of managing the feat is with the aid of the druid Panoramix, brewer of the famed potion to which Astérix and Obélix owe their mighty Roman-bashing strength. Seizing the opportunity to hang another victory over their old nemesis, Astérix, Obélix and Panoramix are only too happy to oblige. But Cleopatra has scorpions in her midst in the form of the scheming Amonbofis (Gérard Darmon) who will stop at nothing to see the project foiled.
Unlike Claude Zidi, who co-wrote and directed the first film, actor/writer/director Chabat treats the sequel with less reverence for the source material and greater attention to spectacle and commercial appeal. This approach undoubtedly contributed to the eventual Miramax acquisition and release decision, for "Mission Cleopatra" is big in a very Hollywood sense--the kind of overblown, effects-laden comedy which, for much of the world, is virtually synonymous with Hollywood. And though, as stated previously, it's not nearly as charming or imaginative as its predecessor (which also benefited from the casting of Roberto Benigni in a key supporting role), it can't be denied that "Mission Cleopatra" does a better job of wearing its budget on its sleeve.
Some adjustments have also been made with respect to certain character names so that the puns and double-meanings that work in French receive some English facsimile. "Panoramix," for instance, is translated as "Getafix," "Amonbofis" as "Artifis," and "Numérobis" as "Edifis." Though relatively minor, they are alternations that point to the film's consistent effort to make this "Astérix" more user-friendly for non-Francophones.
Ironically, the hiring of Chabat has resulted in one very substantial change that does not bode well for broader commercial appeal. Unlike the more visually-oriented Zidi, Chabat's sense of comedy relies heavily upon verbal gags, double-entendres and other traditional devices of French farce that either don't translate well in subtitles, or transpire too quickly for the subtitles to convey their meaning. There is still more than enough production value and broad, cross-cultural comedy to go around, but those who don't speak French should know that they're not getting the complete picture.
Once both films have been released, the inevitable debate will rage here, as in France, as to which is better. And here, as in France, the argument will be moot. Each will have its admirers, with purists embracing the original and others perhaps favoring the sequel. The only real question will be whether Americans will embrace them in sufficient numbers to convince Miramax to continue importing future installments in the series. Starring Christian Clavier, Gérard Depardieu, Monica Bellucci, Alain Chabat, Jamel Debbouze, Claude Rich, Gérard Darmon and Dieudonné. Directed and written by Alain Chabat. Produced by Claude Berri and Pierre Grunstein. A Miramax release. Comedy. French-language; subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 107 min