Danger 5, a 2012 Australian action-comedy that finally made its way to the States last month on Netflix, is not only a weird new comedy you should check out, but it’s one of the best post-modern sendups of WWII comic books, Sean Connery-era James Bond spy flicks, badly dubbed Japanese monster movies, shoddy Saturday morning puppet shows, ‘60s swinger cocktail parties, and above all, lurid pulp magazine covers with naked damsels in distress menaced by Nazis and giant mythical creatures. It’s a futile endeavor to contextualize Danger 5 with similar films and television shows – there are shades of Team America, Archer, Thunderbirds, The Spoils of Babylon, Austin Powers, and Land of the Lost throughout its debut season – but none of these projects consolidate as many nerdy film and retro comic book stylings together like Danger 5. Its cheesy tone and low-budget exploitation feel make a deceptively haphazard front for what is actually a beautifully cohesive kind of slam-bang creativity, one that proudly wears its cheapness on its sleeve while consistently delivering, time and again, a uniquely warped revisionist history and deadpan humor throughout its six-episode debut season.
The brainchild of director Dario Russo and David Ashby, Danger 5 takes place in a bizarro version of World War II wherein a group of swinging international spies is tasked with killing Adolf Hitler and foiling his plans to take over the world. It’s the ultimate pulpy, retro, low-budget genre throwback, a follow-up of sorts to the duo’s 2008 cult YouTube hit Italian Spiderman, which started as a fake trailer Russo made in film school. While there was talk of continuing Italian Spiderman as a television series, the project was ultimately scrapped; instead, Russo and Ashby landed a TV development deal, and in 2012 Danger 5 debuted to Australian audiences. Russo noted one of the biggest sources of inspiration for Danger 5 was his love for American mens’ adventure magazines from the ‘60s and ‘70s containing “these short, ribald narratives that are generally set in World War II, that feature Nazi animals marauding scantily clad busty allied women. Or grotesque Nazi torturers, whipping French resistance girls with a myriad sort of sexually slanted torture devices. This perverse interpretation of World War II ended up being the basis for the show, which we then slathered in sixties movie and television references as well.”
Like Italian Spiderman, at first glance season 1 of Danger 5 could easily be mistaken for one of the ‘60s foreign films it parodies. It’s rare to see a show avoid all the CG shortcuts of today’s technology in favor of painstakingly elaborate miniature sets, scenes, and explosions, and Danger 5 is such an artful and lovingly made homage that the storyline is sometimes secondary to the punchlines found in the lighting, sets, cinematography, and subtitles – and that’s saying a lot when the storylines involve things like Nazi-controlled dinosaurs, robot German Shepherds, the disappearance of the entire country of Japan, and characters who recite drink recipes before they die in the arms of the group’s French bartender Pierre (you’ll learn how to make the perfect Carlos Sultana, Chinese Whisper, and Beyond Chunderdome, among others). The things you’ll find in Danger 5 sound like a NYC nightclub recommendation from Stefon: sharks with switchblades, Swiss tiger men who bleed gold glitter, brothels where an STD transforms patrons into Nazis, and Hitler’s miraculous escape flying through a window at the end of every episode are just a few highlights.
The “intentionally bad” TV style has become the trademark approach of comedians like Tim and Eric and more recently the Good Neighbor guys on SNL, and Russo and Ashby put similar love and care into the gonzo accuracy of Danger 5. The show never winks at its audience, and Russo and Ashby use their tiny budget to their full advantage: “We wanted all our bases to be volcanic lairs with cathedral ceilings! Then we found out how much money we had and that we had one room ten metres by five tall,” Russo told Time Out back in 2012. “Our swelling imaginations were controlled by the practicalities of making this stuff work. The art department suffered the most throughout the experience.” Ashby echoed the same idea to Twitch TV: “Economy helps bring out the comedy; we are very strong believers that the audience is intelligent and doesn’t need to be spoon-fed and would find it funny if we re-used the same spaces in every episode.”
But outlandish storylines and special effects are only part of what makes Danger 5 work so well. The cast is letter-perfect, all on the same tonal page as they constantly drink, smoke, and murder their way to Hitler. Ashby (who also starred in Italian Spiderman) stars as Jackson the brawny American, Natasa Ristic plays chain-smoking Russian vixen Ilsa, Amanda Simons is virgin Brit bombshell Claire, Aldo Mignone (and in season 2, Pacharo Mzembe) plays sensitive French mixologist Pierre, and Sean James Murphy is Tucker, the Aussie forever in love with Claire, but not ready for marriage. The Danger 5 team’s evil nemesis Adolf Hitler is played by Russo’s non-actor father, Carmine. Stalin (with a shagadelic lounge hideout inside his mustache), Mussolini (a child with an adult-dubbed voice), Josef Mengele, Heinrich Himmler, Emperor Hirohito, Rommel, and Hermann Göring all show up along the way in attempt to thwart their mission, and the series hops all over the globe in location and language, with scenes in the US, Japan, Belgium, Germany, South Africa, and even Atlantis to a total of seven languages spoken by various characters, who all understand each other perfectly.
Sadly, as with Archer and The Interview, recent real-world headlines of terrorism and international conflict disrupted production on Danger 5 with a delayed release for season 2, which the team announced in December: “This is due to unforeseen international news events and the recent ISIS actions and it’s felt in the current climate the series might not be received in the comedic spirit in which it was created.” But Archer retired the “ISIS” name and moved on, The Interview broke VOD release records for Sony, and Danger 5 wrapped up season 2 – which hopped forward in time to the ‘80s – in Australia last month, so hopefully that means it’s headed to the States soon. No doubt it’s tricky to make a successful comedy about terrorism and historical villains when real-world terrorists still dominate the news, but as Taran Killam put it earlier this week, “Freedom to mock is our greatest weapon.” Maybe America isn’t quite ready for silly Kim Jong-un assassination comedies or two-minute SNL sketches about sending your daughter off to join ISIS, but the only way to get them ready is to show them anyway. The fearless, gleeful revisionist history and proudly dated super spy vs. Third Reich gusto of Danger 5 is certainly a great place to start.