I Spy has “Hollywood Formula” written all over it. Start with a pair of ethnically mismatched buddies. Get a script, any script, something in a popular genre. Write some good-natured teasing and taunting between the buddies. Throw in some explosions and a villain who wants to conquer the world, and voilá, instant movie.
PG-13 for action violence, language, sexual content
Eddie Murphy teams with Owen Wilson in I Spy. Although the film is ostensibly based on the TV series starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, fans of the show say the movie is completely unrecognizable.
Wilson plays Alex Scott, a spy in the movie sense of the word. His CIA has a division devoted to gadgets, just like Q division in the James Bond movies. Alex has a case of gadget envy because his rival Carlos gets smaller, sleeker, sexier equipment; Alex’s spy camera takes two hands and weighs about ten pounds.
Murphy plays Kelly Robinson, a boxing champ recruited by the CIA to provide a cover story for Alex. Kelly will be boxing for a worldwide title in Hungary where a stealth fighter plane has gone missing. Kelly takes his induction into the CIA a little too seriously; he thinks he’s been put in charge of Alex’s mission.
On the flip side, our villain Gundars (Malcolm McDowell) has the plane and will try to sell it to the highest bidder before the two spies can stop him.
Spy movies have already been parodied half a dozen times this year, from Austin Powers to XXX. Aside from the joke about gadget envy, I Spy doesn’t contribute anything new or clever. The spy genre is little more than a setting for this hackneyed buddy picture.
The disposable plot makes it hard to take I Spy seriously. As a movie, it stinks. And yet it doesn’t take itself seriously. It seems to know that it’s a lousy movie, and it tries to draw attention away from the story by focusing on the personalities. On that level, I Spy works.
Murphy is funny in everything he does. Even in a bad movie, he himself is funny. In I Spy, Kelly’s gigantic ego provides lots of laughs and feeds many jokes. Wilson’s quiet, dry sense of humor is a great complement to Murphy’s outgoing style.
The only problem pairing Murphy with Wilson is that both of them are very verbal comics. Each one’s schtick is very talky, so when they do their respective bits, the film stops dead. These scenes are the high comic points of the film, but they have the lowest kinetic energy. Far from being featured, they get lost amid the explosions and chase scenes.
Because of Murphy and Wilson, I Spy is not a complete waste of time, but that’s the best that can be said of it.