Austin Millbarge is a basement-dwelling codebreaker at the Pentagon who aspires to escape his under-respected job to become a secret agent. Emmett Fitz-Hume, a wisecracking, pencil-pushing son of an envoy, takes the foreign service exam under peer pressure. Millbarge and Fitz-Hume meet during the test, on which Fitz-Hume openly attempts to cheat after an attempt to bribe his immediate supervisor in exchange for the answers backfires. Millbarge, however, was forced to take the test, having had only one day to prepare after his supervisor gives him a notice that was two weeks old.
Needing expendable agents to act as decoys to draw attention away from a more capable team, the DIA decides to enlist the two, promote them to be Foreign Service Operatives, put them through minimal training, and then send them on an undefined mission into Soviet Central Asia. Meanwhile, professional agents are well on their way to reaching the real objective: the seizure of a mobile SS-50 ICBM launcher. The main team takes a loss, while Millbarge and Fitz-Hume escape enemy attacks and eventually encounter Karen Boyer, the only surviving operative from the main team.
In the Pamir Mountains of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, the trio overpowers a mobile missile guard unit using hastily constructed extraterrestrial outfits and tranquilizer guns. Following orders in real-time from the intelligence agency (operating from a military bunker located deep under an abandoned drive-in theater), they begin to operate the launcher. At the end of their instructions, the vehicle launches the ICBM into space, targeting an unspecified area in the United States. Thinking they have begun a nuclear war, the American agents and their Soviet counterparts pair up to have sex before the world ends.
Meanwhile, the military commander at the operations bunker, initiates the conversion of the drive-in theater to expose what is hidden beneath the screens and projection booth: a huge black-op SDI-esque laser and collector/emitter screen. The purpose of sending the agents to launch a Soviet ICBM is thereby exposed as a means to test this anti-ballistic missile system. Unfortunately, the laser fails to intercept the nuclear missile, which is heading for the U.S. and will almost certainly trigger a global thermonuclear war.
Back in the Soviet Union, horrified at the thought of having launched a nuclear missile at their own country, the American spies and the Russian soldiers use Millbarge's technical knowledge to force a malfunction in the launcher vehicle and transmit junk instructions to the traveling missile, sending it off into space where it detonates harmlessly. Immediately after, the underground bunker is stormed by U.S. Army Rangers, and the intelligence and military officials involved in the covert operation are arrested. Millbarge, Fitz-Hume, and Boyer go on to become nuclear disarmament negotiators, playing a nuclear version of Risk-meets-Trivial Pursuit against the Soviets.
The title song, "Spies Like Us", was written and performed by Paul McCartney. It reached #7 on the singles chart in the United States in early 1986. It also reached #13 in the UK.
The film's score was composed by Elmer Bernstein and performed by the Graunke Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer. The soundtrack album was released by Varèse Sarabande; it does not contain the Paul McCartney song. The film also featured "Soul Finger," by the Bar-Kays, also absent from the soundtrack.
- The Ace Tomato Company (5:06)
- Off To Spy (1:52)
- Russians In The Desert (2:21)
- Pass In The Tent (2:58)
- Escape (3:25)
- To The Bus (3:14)
- The Road To Russia (3:39)
- Rally 'Round (2:39)
- W.A.M.P. (2:48)
- Martian Act (3:08)
- Arrest (2:21)
- Recall (2:38)
- Winners (1:16)
Spies Like Us was met with mixed to negative reviews at the time of its 1985 release, though it has since been reappraised and viewed more favorably and has developed something of a cult following in the years since. As of July 29, 2012, the film holds a 35% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 23 reviews.
In spite of unfavorable reviews, the movie was a box office success.