Elvis Presley loved karate. We saw this on stage, most memorably in the Las Vegas shows, where the King of rock ‘n’ roll, wearing an unforgettable white jumpsuit, would launch into flying kicks and karate chops aimed at invisible adversaries. Presley had first learnt karate in the army, then took it up seriously—reportedly earning a black belt later—and had incorporated martial arts moves to give his performances some pizzazz. In the Netflix comedy Agent Elvis, Presley is battling actual demons—the man in the jumpsuit isn’t a make-believe hero no more. When the King starts to do it, it’s as good as done.
As with mythologically larger-than-life characters, “Elvis” is a cipher. We look at that colossus and ascribe our own meanings: Elvis the undead, Elvis the alien, Elvis the eater of worlds, Elvis the Illuminati…. His name sold tabloids because even the most fanciful things were easier to believe than the truth. “Be formless, shapeless, like water,” the equally mythological Bruce Lee famously said. “You put water into the cup, it becomes the cup.” Elvis comes close. He flows into whatever outlandish shape we draw for him but he sure ain’t water.
This gloriously violent and profane animated series works precisely because we like the King in all shapes and sizes. Secret agent Elvis (Matthew McConaughey) and his ultraviolent gang stomp across events of the 1960s—the moon landing, the 1969 Altamont tragedy—and the first episode borrows so much context from Quentin Tarantino’s last film that it may as well be called Once Upon A Time In Graceland. Elvis is a dandy addicted to danger, accompanied by a murderous chimpanzee, a helicopter-flying yokel and a smart-mouthed secret agent who repeatedly makes it clear she isn’t a fan of the King. They kill first, think later. To be precise: These fools rush in.
Agent Elvis has a lot of blood and nudity and cocaine, but even more retro pop-culture references. Elvis borrows Peter Fonda’s motorcycle from Easy Rider, meets Stanley Kubrick, who directs the moon landing, and squabbles with Howard Hughes. Elvis songs are played frequently but more reverence is given to post-Elvis 1960s music, like Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, David Bowie’s Space Oddity and Hello I Love You by The Doors. “Jim Morrison is an actual god,” says CeCe, voiced sneeringly by It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson. “One of the hot Greek ones.” When she spots The Grateful Dead, she promptly excuses herself: “Back in a jiff.” “What the hell’s a jiff?” growls Elvis, mid-motorcycle chase. “I don’t know, however long it takes to meet/maybe blow Jerry Garcia.”
It’s a smart show—one that gets better with each episode as the historic references get more ambitious and more silly—and it’s even smarter-looking. The gorgeous (and preposterous) Elvis outfits are designed by John Varvatos and the show pays significant attention to clothing and fashion. The King would approve. Developed by Mike Arnold and John Eddie—with Elvis’ wife Priscilla Presley credited as co-creator—the show has a flamboyant aesthetic, with stylish match-cuts and split-screens. The second episode, for instance, opens with a highly cinematic aerial shot of vultures circling. I was reminded of Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon’s stunning Casanova comics. The cleverly choreographed action sequences have an impressively Samurai Jack feel. The violence is very comic-book, yet brutally hard-core. All shook up.
Actors do Elvis their own way. Austin Butler caught the vibe in Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 Elvis (Prime Video), Kurt Russell found the swagger in John Carpenter’s 1979 Elvis. Think of wilder ones: Michael Shannon in the underrated 2016 Elvis & Nixon (Prime Video), a grizzled madman tenderly stroking his gold-plated guns, or Bruce Campbell in the bonkers 2002 film Bubba Ho-Tep, where an old Elvis flees a retirement home to kill a reanimated mummy. For Agent Elvis, Matthew McConaughey—who has a pretty distinctive drawl of his own—voices the King without doing “the voice”, playing it straight while channelling Johnny Bravo, which feels most appropriate.
An animated retro spy series full of blatant innuendo obviously recalls the very best spy comedy, Archer (also on Netflix), and while that fantastic series is obviously an influence, there is one massive difference: The King keeps his nose clean. Unlike the womanising Archer, Elvis doesn’t ever partake of groupies and drugs (or even carbs) around him and it’s amusing to see a man who loved excess whitewashed to this degree (my theory is that CeCe, who always partakes, is Elvis’s alter ego, a Marla Singer he has made up in his head). Luhrmann’s film, too, averts its gaze from Elvis’ womanising. Is that the price to pay for using the songs? This show feels “official”—with Priscilla watching over it, lending it her name and her voice—and therefore it likes Elvis. It treats him nice.
In Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, there is a line about the world being divided into Elvis people and Beatles people. That now feels dated because the scales have tipped. Beatlemania continues to rise, while casual rock fans would struggle to name even five Elvis deep-cuts. “You can’t afford it,” CeCe snubs Elvis after he enquires about something too exorbitant. “Beatles money maybe, but not you.” Now, 45 years after his death, the King is mounting another comeback. The movies, the remastered music, and now this weird cartoon. All this engagement will feed the Elvis estate, bring in new audiences, keep the jukebox playing. In this world of memes and samples, he’s here to stay—in some shape or another. Elvis is never leaving the building.
STREAMING TIP OF THE WEEK
David Letterman takes a peek behind the U2 curtain with the strange documentary Bono & The Edge: A Sort Of Homecoming (Apple TV+). The bearded talk-show host discovers Dublin through the Irish band’s songs and stories. It’s a bit too flattering but fans will find much to love.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series.
Also read: Ted Lasso’s life of tryin’