Mark Reviews Movies

I SPY

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Betty Thomas

Cast: Eddie Murphy, Owen Wilson, Famke Janssen, Malcolm McDowell, Gary Cole

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for action violence, some sexual content and language)

Running Time: 1:36

Release Date: 11/1/02


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Sometimes reviewing a specific movie seems relatively simple until you really start to think about the whole process. My initial reaction to I Spy is pretty neutral. I feel neither attachment nor animosity toward the movie; I just know I didnít like it. Because I have no strong feelings either way, figuring out an argument to justify my reaction seems both difficult and pointless. Itís difficult because thereís not much to the movie to begin with, and itís pointless because I simply donít care about the movie enough to rationalize my developing a case against it. But here I am, about to embark on this piece with only a rationale of indifference to guide me. I know that the movie is based on the old í60s TV show that starred Bill Cosby and Robert Culp (I knew Cosby but had to look up Culp), and adding to my apathy, Iíve never seen an episode of the original series. I keep losing possible angles as I go. All of this leaves me to look at I Spy on its own merits, as a buddy-action movie based on an old television show to which I have no point of comparison. Now that thatís settled, letís continue.

Super-agent (he just got promoted) Alex Scott (Owen Wilson) of the Bureau of National Security has been assigned to discover information about the Switchblade, a top-secret stealth bomber that recently went missing. Apparently, it was stolen by the infamous arms dealer Arnold Gundars (Malcolm McDowell, restrained from showing off the extent of his villainy), who will sell it to the highest bidder. The bureau decides it needs some outside help from boxing champion Kelly Robinson (Eddie Murphy), who is preparing for a title bout in Budapest, where Gundars is hiding the top-secret weapon. Scott isnít too happy about his new partner, and Robinson isnít one to have rules imposed on him. So the mismatched pair and fellow spy Rachel (Famke Janssen), Scottís secret crush, head off to Budapest and do lots of spy stuff to try and capture Gundars and return the Switchblade. All the while, of course, Scott and Robinson are at odds.

This synopsis should make it pretty clear that the story is horribly conventional and predictable, but I begin to wonder if thatís the point. From the start, the movie sets itself off as a silly comedy, almost to the point of parody. Scott starts off, as the title card tells us, at the top of a mountain and, after an avalanche, ends up, as the title card tells us, at the bottom of the same mountain. From there it seems to get sillier, but then the action picks up, and the tone changes. Suddenly it presents a comparatively serious action sequence. The whole movie staggers with this conflict, although later the action scenes have the typical humor that accompanies partners at odds who are forced to work together. Every so often, though, a bit of the parody shines through, most often in the form of self-referential humor. It makes me wonder if the red digital readout at the end is meant to be ironic or if itís just lazy screenwriting, but either way the climax is all over the place. Otherwise, a lot of the joke scenes go on far too long. Take a bonding scene in the sewer or Rachelís seduction scene as examples. The jokes just get old quickly.

These kinds of movies are generally made successful by a successful pairing of two gifted and funny comedians, and such a combination could be made of Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy. The highlight of the movie is seeing these two bounce ad-libs off each other. The two have a fine comic chemistry. Wilsonís persona fits much better here than in his previous action outing Behind Enemy Lines. Scott is interesting; heís a second-rate spy with a laid-back but whiny attitude. Oddly, though, the movie forgoes this angle once Murphyís Robinson joins him, and suddenly, Scott is a competent leader. Well, that is until the screenplay needs him to screw up. As Robinson, Murphy once again plays the energetic, egotistical type to much success. Heís not up to his usual par, but heís still very funny, tossing off improvised lines left and right. Another odd character choice, though, is the decision to make Robinsonís acceptance of the entire spy world in such an off-handed nature. Maybe heís done it before, and itís part of the show. If it is, I wouldnít know.

Thereís nothing new or revolutionary about I Spy, but thereís also nothing notably worthwhile either. The movie is stylistically drab, straightforward, andódare I sayóboring. I may have liked it a little more if it had taken on its sillier qualities head-on. Even if it is generally amusing from time to time, I Spy has all the same problems the majority of action comedies have.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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