‘The Brothers Grimsby’
Director:
Louis Leterrier
Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

When Sacha Baron Cohen does a gag in which, let’s say, Mark Strong is splattered in elephant semen, is it just a gag about Mark Strong being splattered in elephant semen? 

Usually there’s more to a Cohen joke than just yuks. Cambridge-educated, fearlessly putting himself in actual harm’s way to expose ignorance and prejudice, he’s made a career out of pretending to play to the lowest common denominator while working an agenda of progressiveness by way of genuine discomfort. “The Brothers Grimsby” is the first of his films that often — though definitely not always — seems it’s only about going for big, usually gross-out laughs. How to top “Borat”’s famous naked wrestling tussle? How about putting himself and Strong, a Shakespearean-trained Brit and frequent movie villain, inside an elephant vagina and waiting for a parade of pachyderms to roger the Dickens out of them?

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“Grimsby” is also the first Cohen that’s easy to imagine starring just about anyone other cut-up. The idea is a broad one: to take a Bond pastiche and insert an idiot. And so Strong’s elegant MI6 bruiser Sebastian Butcher is paired with Cohen’s Nobby, a Northern England hooligan and welfare-grifter with 11 kids and a couple grandkids, one named Django Unchained. The two are long lost brothers, reunited at the moment Sebastian is about to prevent the assassination of a noted humanitarian. Instead Nobby causes him to miss, which somehow results in Daniel Radcliffe contracting AIDS.

Blamed for the hit and forced on the run, Sebastian reluctantly teams with Nobby to stop, after “Zoolander 2,” the year’s second shruggily inane plot for world domination that features Penelope Cruz. The story’s there only to support jokes, and Cohen, who also co-wrote, sometimes falls back on easy, Farrelly-style set pieces. He’s not really subverting them, though he is blowing them up to unusually ridiculous proportions. It’s a film more obsessed with anal cavities than a frat boy, and the elephant bit is kind of funny not because of the multitude of elephant peens, or even because it involves the unflappable Strong being repeatedly hosed down. It’s because it overly commits to a truly dumb idea, appealing to our stupidest instincts.

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That we know Cohen is a smart man who can speak eloquently about oppression and bigotry makes it easy to read perhaps too much thought into “Grimsby.” At first it may seem he’s depicting the low-income denizens of the real-life town of Grimsby a la the backwards, incestuous, anti-Semitic natives of Kazakhstan in “Borat.” But he’s much more fond of them than the Kazakhs, and Nobby, with his big ugly toothed smile, is an endearing fool, even when, maybe especially when, he’s discovered the guilt-free fun of shooting people (and pigeons) with guns. 

Or is “Grimsby” just a filthy romp with a couple terrible first-person shooter action scenes — this, despite being helmed by actual action director Louis Leterrier (“Transporter 2,” “The Incredible Hulk”) — and occasional lumps of satire? (A dig at Donald Trump was clearly inserted at the last second.) Its politics ultimately prove noble but they’re also incoherent. Even gay jokes that were not-at-all-secretly enlightened in “Bruno” are nearly indistinguishable from simple old school gay panic. 

Sometimes a joke about a man sucking poison out of his brother’s swollen nutsac is just a joke about a man sucking poison out of his brother’s swollen nutsac. Although actually showing Cohen’s mouth on the body part does subtly, if you will, suggest he’s a progressive trying to make the right people uncomfortable, as usual. Look hard enough and the very dumb “Grimsby” is not just his version of Bond send-up but a continuation of his plot to make the world less stupid.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge