The Man Who Knew Too Little is Clever Fun on DVD

Bill Murray, Joanne Whalley, Richard Wilson, Alfred Molina, Peter Gallagher. Directed by Jon Amiel. Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 (anamorphic), side one; pan&scan, side 2. Dolby Digital 5.1. 94 minutes. 1997. Warner Bros. 15626. Rated PG. $24.95.

As every comic knows, it's all in the timing. The Man Who Knew Too Little was released at about the same time as another spy spoof, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. The latter movie gained greater popularity, but The Man Who Knew Too Little is far more clever and less silly, and it even has an element of suspense that Mike Myers' film entirely lacks.

Wallace Ritchie (Bill Murray), good-natured but not terribly swift, decides to celebrate his birthday by visiting his brother (Peter Gallagher), an upwardly mobile banker living in London. When Wallace arrives, the brother and his wife are about to give a dinner party for some influential German business associates. To get rid of Wallace for the evening, his brother buys him a ticket for The Theater of Life, an avant-garde theater piece of the participatory variety that takes place not on stage but throughout the city of London.

The performance is to start with Wallace answering a public phone to receive initial instructions. The call comes a little early, but Wallace picks it up anyway. Unbeknownst to him, the caller is a spymaster who thinks he's talking to a hired assassin. Wallace follows the instructions as he understands them, and his bumbling actions are interpreted by people around him as being those of an ultracool master spy with a license to kill.

It's all quite clever and very funny, particularly for anyone with some acting background. When muggers confront Wallace, he thinks it's part of the show and delivers a hammy monologue that sounds like something from Death Wish. Part of the script's cleverness is that every line and action is plausible as make-believe from Wallace's point of view, but we know everything is real. In a way, this is the flip side of The Truman Show, in which the reality that Truman experiences is fake.

Murray eschews his usual sardonic screen persona, playing Wallace as an innocent with touches of Inspector Clouseau. He's ably supported by the delicious Joanne Whalley (who more or less reprises her role as Christine Keeler in Scandal), Peter Gallagher as the yuppie brother, and a crack team of British character actors as assorted spies, British upper-class types, stuffy Germans, officious policemen, and a corpse or two. Jon Amiel, best known for The Singing Detective, directs with sensitivity and restraint, allowing the comedy to emerge from character and situation rather than hitting you over the head with it.

The Man Who Knew Too Little was shot in London, and that city by night emerges as another star of the movie. As Amiel suggests in his director's commentary track, what we see (apart from the muggers) is the tourist's romantic vision of the city as experienced by Wallace Ritchie. The DVD's video quality is first-rate, capturing subtle shadings and colors that range from muted to vibrant. Christopher Young contributes a stylish score with tongue-in-cheek quotes from Henry Mancini and John Barry, and it sounds great in Dolby Digital.